Due to it being played over three courses, the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship is a right old guddle. It’s not until Saturday night, after everyone has played at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, that the leaderboard in the £4 million event really starts to reveal itself with any sort of clarity. It was an encouraging first day, nonetheless, for a posse of Scots.
Taking up where he left off when finishing sixth in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last Sunday, Richie Ramsay led the way among an 11-strong home contingent with a seven-under-par 65 at Kingsbarns. That came after Russell Knox had carded a six-under 66 at St Andrews, an effort he reckoned was one of his best on Scottish soil as a professional.
Back at Kingsbarns, Knox’s fellow debutant, Calum Hill, shone again on a big stage as the Challenge Tour Order of Merit leader signed off with an eagle for a 66. Add in Vic Open winner David Law and rookie pro Euan Walker shooting 68s at Kingsbarns and St Andrews respectively and the good days keep coming for the Saltire bearers on the European Tour this season.
Ramsay, who shared second spot behind Englishman Oliver Wilson in 2014, switched seamlessly from a tree-lined test at Wentworth to links golf as he carded seven birdies, including two to finish. “This is a course that I probably haven’t shot the numbers I feel I could have, so it was nice to get a low one in today, and I’ve just got to keep chasing that and keep chasing more birdies tomorrow at St Andrews, because I just want get in the mix on Sunday,” said the 35-year-old.
“That’s my main goal. Get in the mix on the back nine on Sunday on the Old Course at St Andrews – those ingredients are just too good. That would be a dream to be there and have a chance to win.”
Having joked that he’d “felt like a 15-handicapper” when standing on the first tee at St Andrews in the past, Knox was delighted with an opening salvo there that contained eight birdies. “Yeah, a 14-handicapper… it is definitely getting better,” he said, laughing, of feeling that he’d finally mastered how to play the Old Lady.
Holing a 20-foot birdie putt had set the tone and, although bogeys at the 16th and 17th undid some of his good work thereafter as he led outright at one stage on seven-under, a birdie at the last left him smiling. “It is right up there,” replied Knox when asked how the effort ranked among his rounds on Scottish soil. “This was an important round for me. I’ve been desperate to get some momentum going. I need to do a little better.
“Coming here, I know that St Andrews is always scoreable in this format. I knew that the conditions were decent and the pins were going to be relatively easy. I knew that I needed to go out and play a good round for my confidence going forward. I definitely saw enough to be confident going forward, so I am happy with that.”
He reckoned it had been one of his best ball-striking rounds for a long time, picking out his tee shot to the 11th as one to really savour. “One of the best shots I have ever felt coming off the club,” he said of that blow, adding: “I had 166 and I hit a seven iron, which held against the wind perfectly. It went to five feet and in she went.”
He had a new set of Srixon irons in the bag and revealed a secret about them. “Don’t tell my caddie, but I switched shafts this week but I didn’t let him know,” he said. “It was a big secret because I didn’t want him to freak out. I went from an X100 to an S300, which is a little softer. Hopefully he doesn’t read the papers but he won’t care after I’ve shot 66!”
Hill, who finished joint 26th on his European Tour debut in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at The Renaisance Club in July, is off and running again as he tests himself once more against the big boys. He’s already secured his card for the main tour for next season off the Challenge Tour and, based on an effort that contained six birdies as well as that eagle, the 24-year-old looks very much at home at this level.
Law, of course, already proved that with his win in Australia earlier in the year and he signed for five birdies in matching the promising start made by Walker in just his second outing as a professional, having taken his debut in his stride to make the cut in the KLM Open in Amsterdam earlier this month. “It’s just golf, especially today out on the Old Course, a place I’ve played a lot,” said the 24-year-Ayrshireman, referring to five Links Trophy appearances, including an 11th place finish, as an amateur.
In an event featuring 168 pros, pride of place on the opening day went to South African Justin Walters. His nine-under-par 63 at St Andrews was an emotional occasion, having recently lost his father. “It’s been quite hard,” admitted the 38-year-old. “I just kind of decided not to feel sorry for myself, really, and kind of dust myself off and coming in here, it has a healing quality. I was here with my dad when we lost mum, and I just thought I was back with him.”