ON a day when the leader was talking about camels, no one was taking the hump over Thor-bjorn Olesen carding a 63 at Gullane or Graeme McDowell also being to the fore on his return to the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
In the build up to the first European Tour event to be staged at the East Lothian venue, there was a genuine concern among the locals about the composite Championship Course being “torn apart” by a world-class field. While seven-under-par – Olesen, a 25-year-old Dane produced a flawless opening salvo – certainly isn’t shabby, the new venue for the £3.25 million event stood up pretty well overall. Given that the morning starters in particular enjoyed fairly benign conditions, the fact Olesen’s score was the best by two shots until Englishman Daniel Brooks came in late in the day with a 64 was a clear indication that no massacre took place.
You could attack the course a little bit, and I holed some great puttsThorbjorn Olesen
In fact, the leading score was in keeping with the average to par in recent Scottish Opens. In 2013, the final year at Castle Stuart, John Parry was the pacesetter with an eight-under 64. Twelve months ago, Rory McIlroy held the first-day lead following a seven-under 64 at Royal Aberdeen.
“You could attack the course a little bit and, in addition to hitting quite a lot of fairways – something I’ve been struggling with – I holed some great putts,” said Olesen, who birdied the second, sixth and seventh to be out in 32 before coming home in one fewer thanks to four further gains, including three in a row from the 15th.
Since finishing 15th in the Race to Dubai in 2012 – he won the Sicilian Open that season as well as finishing runner-up in the Dunhill Links and ninth in the Open Championship – his career has been blighted by injuries. First, he suffered groin damage jumping off a camel. Then, after marking his recovery from that by winning the Perth International in Australia towards the end of last season, he discovered a tendon problem in his left hand that eventually required surgery.
“I’ve had enough of bad luck,” said Olesen. “I suffered the camel injury a few years ago when I was with a few mates in Dubai. We went on a desert safari that included a camel ride. When I jumped down from it, I pulled a muscle in my groin and it was pretty bad. In fact, it was a few weeks before I could walk properly again.”
On his return from the wrist injury, Olesen finished runner-up in Mauritius in early May but has since missed five cuts in six outings. This opening effort was 14 shots better than the one he managed in France a week ago.
“It’s been a tough time, but I’ve kept working on the right things and it showed today that I can still shoot low rounds, having hit all the greens (in regulation) apart from the last one,” he said, smiling.
On a day when the sun shone until early evening, seven players signed for 65s – American Jimmy Walker, Swede Johan Carlsson, Spanish duo Adrian Otaegui and Alejandro Canizares and English trio Richard Finch, Matthew Nixon and Seve Benson. Defending champion Justin Rose, American Rickie Fowler and McDowell are in a group on 66, the latter signing for that score after dropping shots at the final two holes.
“That’s always disappointing,” said the 2008 winner, “but I’d have taken that score going out and I’ll take it now.” This is McDowell’s first appearance in the event since 2011, following which he made comments about Castle Stuart that he instantly regretted. He immediately apologised to Aberdeen Asset Management through the company’s chief executive, Martin Gilbert, and it would have been pleasing for McDowell and the title sponsor that he returned with a positive performance.
In truth, they have been few and far between for the 2010 US Open champion this year. His best finish on the European Tour was ninth in Dubai back in February and, as defending champion, he missed the cut in last week’s French Open following a second-round 78. It prompted some changes coming into this week. “I sat down with my coach, Pete Cowen, and we looked at some swings from four or five years ago,” said the 35-year-old Northern Irishman. “As a result of that, we have tried to simplify my thoughts. I’ve narrowed my stance and I’m trying to use my body to swing the clubface back to where I always used to swing it. Today I hit the ball much more solid than I have for a while.”
After playing brutally demanding courses such as Chambers Bay (US Open) and Le Golf National (French Open) in recent weeks, McDowell said his encouraging effort had also been down to this week’s layout being less taxing. “I don’t want to call this golf course easy because if the wind gets up this weekend it’s going to be far from easy,” said the Ryder Cup player, who is determined to halt his slide down the world rankings, having just dropped out of the top 50 after being as high as fourth in March 2011. “But conditions were benign this morning and if you hit it on the fairways on this golf course you have some great chances. My putter was hot and spicy for the first 11 or 12 holes before cooling off a bit coming in but I’m not going to let that finish disappoint me. I needed a low score to get my belief and my confidence back and today will go a long way to that.”
In the main, a first-day crowd of 13,547 watched good golf but a few big names were bitten by the rough – and it’s not nearly as fierce as it normally is at this time of the year. Former Open champion David Duval, for instance, opened with a quadruple-bogey 8, losing his first tee shot on the right of the fairway then the next one on the left. Armed with an iron for his third attempt, the American finally found the short stuff, only to bookend his round by finishing with another 8 for a 77. Two home hopes were also left licking wounds. Martin Laird started with a 7; Colin Montgomerie finished with one.
Add in the stunning views up to Edinburgh and across to Fife that were beamed around the world and it was exactly the opening day that Gullane would have wanted.