Return to big stage bringing out best in Whiteford

Peter Whiteford had a fine first round at Gullane yesterday. Pic: Paul Devlin/SNS
Peter Whiteford had a fine first round at Gullane yesterday. Pic: Paul Devlin/SNS
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It was no surprise to see 
Rickie Fowler, the 2015 winner here, get off to a flying start in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at Gullane. Masters champion Patrick Reed’s presence there was also expected along with the likes of Tyrrell Hatton, a double Dunhill Links winner, on-form Russell Knox and former world No 1 Lee 

Peter Whiteford, on the other hand, probably wasn’t a name we’d have expected to see up there on the leaderboard. The 37-year-old, after all, had resigned himself to being retired as a European Tour player. His last appearance on the circuit was just under two years ago and he’s not teed up at all on the Challenge Tour this season.

Becoming a father for the first time coincided with Whiteford, a Kirkcaldy man, starting to have problems with arthritis in both hips. So he packed in life as a touring player to become a PGA professional, working for Calum Lawson at Linlithgow.

Whiteford is still a handy player, though. He proved that when securing one of four spots up for grabs in this event through a 36-hole qualifier at Longniddry last week. That earned him a 200th European Tour appearance and he marked that milestone in style with a five-under-par 65.

At the end of a day when there was hardly any wind but the temperature was a good bit down compared to what we’ve had recently, that left him alongside Reed and just one shot behind both Fowler and Westwood. The lead is held by American Luke List after he came in late in the day with a course record-equalling 63.

“That was as nervous as I’ve been for a wee while,” said Whiteford. “As much as I enjoy working at Linlithgow Golf Club, any professional athlete who stops misses the buzz, the adrenaline and all the rest that comes with it. That’s the bit I found hard to deal with when I finished playing.”

Playing in the same group as David Drysdale – the pair are long-time friends – Whiteford got off to the start he was looking for with back-to-back birdies before adding five more. “I think the start was a massive thing for me today,” he said. “If I’d got off to a miserable start then I might have struggled as there are parts of my game where I am not super-confident over the ball.

“My hips have been deteriorating over the last wee while. Last year, I just felt it wasn’t enough to do less practice and play fewer events. I felt that was for better players than myself. That is the reason I chapped it on the head. But you never know, if this week goes great, I wouldn’t rule anything out.

“I would love to be back out here playing. The injury is the same one Andy Murray had basically, so there is treatment. You can get it done pretty quickly – but it’s quite expensive. And there are no guarantees I would get back on Tour.”

List, a 33-year-old who lost to Justin Thomas when he was on his way to becoming world 
No 1 in the Honda Classic earlier this year, carded eight birdies on a day when around 100 players finished under par. “Obviously Justin is one of the best players in the world right now, so to come that close to coming on top at that level is definitely confidence building,” he admitted. “I feel like my game has been getting better and more consistent.”

His first taste of links golf was in the Palmer Cup, a Ryder Cup-style college match, at Prestwick in 2006. “We got whacked pretty good, but it was a great trip. That was my first taste of links golf and I haven’t been back since so it’s nice to be back here and look forward to the rest of this week and Carnoustie for my first Open.”

Fowler finished with three birdies in the last four holes to claim the trophy three years ago. Taking up where he’d left off, the Californian reeled off three birdies in a row from the second, added an eagle-2 at the sixth and might even had a 59 in his sights when he then moved to seven-under with birdies at the 11th and 12th.

A bogey at the 13th put paid to that possibility, but it was a good day’s work nonetheless. “It was nice to go out and execute early and would have been nice to get a few more on the back, but it was playing tougher coming in,” he said.

Among five players alongside Fowler are Edinburgh-based Westwood and Scott Fernandez, a Spaniard with a grandmother from Glasgow.