The Firth of Forth has barely rippled all week. The flags have hardly fluttered. And the course has had all the sting taken out of it by rain falling on it on and off all week. This wasn’t what the Savardi family, the American owners, had in mind for The Renaissance Club’s week in the spotlight as host of the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open.
In short, Mother Nature has turned the $7 million Rolex Series event into the sort of shoot-out you see every week on the Challenge Tour, where courses are not set up nearly as difficult as the ones on the European Tour. The lead, held by in-form Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, heading into the final round on the East Lothian coast, is 20-under-par. That already matches the tournament record, set by Ian Woosnam at Gleneagles in 1987 before being equalled by Brandon Stone on a fast-running course at Gullane 12 months ago, and is set to be toppled. It could even be shattered, with more benign conditions forecast for the last day.
Having skipped the Irish Open at Lahinch to use this event as his final preparation for the 148th Open Championship, a week of what has effectively been ‘target golf’ wasn’t what Rory McIlroy had in mind. While he’s taken it on the chin, the world No 3 believes a tougher test could have been provided simply by the greens being faster than just over 10 on the stimpmeter.
“I would have liked to have seen it a little more difficult, but it’s tough,” said McIlroy, speaking after he’d added a 68 to a pair of 67s to sit on 11-under-par. “The European Tour don’t really know how to set it up because they’ve not been here before. They’ve kept the green speeds very slow. I bumped into Lloyd Saltman (a Waker Cup team-mate at Royal County Down in 2007) last night at dinner. He’s a member here, and I was saying to him that week-in, week-out, short-siding yourself is a no-no. You don’t short-side yourself.
“Here, it’s almost as if you can’t short-side yourself because the greens are so slow. If the greens were even a foot quicker, it would make a world of difference. You’re not getting punished for missing a green on the wrong side, so that’s what I would have wanted. You won’t get away with that next week. The greens will get a little faster, but [here] it’s just been a touch slow and a touch sticky. It doesn’t challenge you enough whenever you miss second shots.”
Wiesberger, who stormed into a share of the halfway lead on the back of a course-record 61, is now two shots out in front on his own after backing that up with an equally impressive 65, an effort he ignited with four birdies in five holes from the fifth. “I caught a bit of fire before the turn,” admitted the 33-year-old, who won in Denmark earlier in the year after being out for seven months following wrist surgery before finishing joint second in the Irish Open last weekend. A sixth tour triumph is now in his sights and he added: “If I win, I’ll probably celebrate with some Scotch. When I won the Ballantine’s Championship in Korea, I was allowed to blend my own Scotch up at St Andrews with their master craftsman.”
Seeking his maiden victory, South African Erik Van Rooyen is leading the chase, with Frenchman Romain Langasque, bidding for a second success on Scottish soil after landing the Amateur Championship at Carnoustie in 2015, a shot further back along with Italian Nino Bertasio. Welshman Jamie Donaldson, another player who had a spell on the sidelines following wrist surgery last year, is also in the posse chasing the leader.
The 43-year-old has only dropped one shot in 54 holes to sit on 15-under and reckoned he’d played as well in a third-round 65 as he did when capping a superb Ryder Cup debut by hitting the winning shot for Europe at Gleneagles in 2014. “It would be massive,” he admitted after being asked how a win here would compare to that week in Perthshire. “I played really good today so, if I could produce that tomorrow, there’s no reason why I can’t have a really good chance.”
It’s taken time, but Donaldson is finally playing painfree and hitting shots the way he did when landing three European Tour wins. “I was right on the money today,” he reported after carding three birdies in the final five holes. “Hitting woods was the hardest thing. With the irons even hitting into the turf was fine. The speed is greater with a wood than it is with an iron and that was harder to manage.”
Along with Italian pair Bertasio and Lorenzo Gagli and England’s Lee Slattery, Donaldson is in the thick of the battle to secure three Open Championship spots up for grabs to the three leading non-exempt players in the top ten. Having been crowned as Irish Open at Royal Portrush in 2012, he badly wants to be back next week. “I really want that Open spot, of course I do, so I’ll be keeping an eye on the leaderboard. But winning is more important than that,” he declared, having given himself a chance to land a top prize worth £930,000 a few months after he picked up £900 in a mini-tour event in preparation for his return to this circuit.
While hopes of heading to County Antrim on the back of a third win of the season are very slim, McIlroy is happy with his game and equally so about the fact he should have no problems keeping his travel plans on schedule for the season’s final major. “The thing I’m happy about is that Belfast City closes at 9pm tomorrow night, so I should get in before they close,” he said, smiling.
It wasn’t a memorable ‘moving day’ for the five Scots left standing. Four shots off the lead at the start of the day, qualifier Calum Hill is now ten behind after a 71. “It was a bit naff overall, really,” said the 24-year-old of an effort that left him sitting joint-38th alongside Scott Jamieson (69). Richie Ramsay (69) and Grant Forrest (70) are nine and eight-under respectively, while David Drysdale (72) was among eight players to miss a secondary cut on four-under. That was brought into effect for just the third time this season after 82 players made it to the weekend, with the top 72 and ties now progressing to the final round.