It was good news and bad news from a Scottish perspective as the leaderboard in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship finally started to take proper shape after three days of laborious jousting at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews.
The good news, and it is certainly something to trumpet, is that Stephen Gallacher, the 2004 winner here, is in the mix again at the £3.85 million pro-am. He is joint-third alongside Tommy Fleetwood and just three shots off the lead held by Tyrrell Hatton who is bidding to retain a stranglehold on this title by claiming it for a third year in a row.
The bad news is that Gallacher is the sole home player to have made it into the final round out of a nine-strong starting contingent, with early exits for Scott Jamieson, David Drysdale, Connor Syme, Richie Ramsay, Marc Warren and Bradley Neil leaving all of them fighting to retain their cards with just two regular events of the season remaining.
In contrast to recent years, there will be no “get out of jail” card being secured by a Scot on the last day of this event on home soil, meaning that only Russell Knox, winner of the Irish Open, and Gallacher are currently on course to retain full playing privileges for the 2019 campaign.
Having come into this event sitting 90th in the Race to Dubai on the back of four solid efforts in a row, Gallacher’s seat at the top table was already effectively secured for another year and, in contrast to his compatriots, the 43-year-old has been able to play with a bit of freedom in his game this week.
That was evident as he backed up a couple of good days at Kingsbarns and Carnoustie with a bogey-free six-under 66 at St Andrews to sit on 11-under. “It could have been a lot better, to be honest,” said Gallacher, who beat Graeme McDowell in a play-off to claim the first of his three European Tour triumphs in this event 14 years ago. “It’s probably the best I’ve played all year.”
The final round will be a shotgun start at 8.30am today due to winds of up to 40mph being forecast. “The weather is going to be brutal tomorrow, everybody is talking about it, so I was just trying to get within touching distance,” admitted Gallacher. It was mission accomplished thanks mainly to three birdies in his last four holes after starting on the tenth. He now has to try and get the better of two members of Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning team in France last weekend to claim a first victory since completing his historic back-to-back double in the Dubai Desert Classic in 2014.
“They’re two top lads playing well and flying high after the Ryder Cup,” he said of Hatton and Fleetwood. “The wee fellah [Hatton] loves this place, he’s done fantastic here and now he’s in good shape to go for three. They’ll be the boys to beat, but it’s good to be in the mix trying to beat them.”
There has been little sign of any Ryder Cup hangover from either Hatton or Fleetwood this week. “You’re tired after a week like the Ryder Cup,” said Gallacher, recalling his own experience after being on the winning side at Gleneagles in 2014. “But these boys are in their 20s. You don’t get tired in your 20s and you don’t get hangovers either. Whereas in 2014 I think I was still a bit rough at the Dunhill!”
There can be no denying that Hatton is the favourite to land a top prize worth £609,592. Helped by two eagles – at the fifth and ninth – he also signed for a 66 on the Old Course. In his last 11 rounds in this event, the 26-year-old Marlow man is a combined 61-under-par. That is some shooting. “I guess it is good,” he said, modestly. “But it doesn’t count for anything at the moment. Obviously I’d like to add to that and, if I can, then hopefully I can have a good finish.”
Playing with Ernie Els, the last player to win the same regular European Tour event three years in a row when he dominated the Heineken Classic from 2002-04, Hatton had already picked up an early birdie on the Old Course before bagging his brace of eagles. “They always help,” he said smiling. “I hit a lovely shot into the fifth. I had 260 yards to the pin, the wind was into and a bit off the left, and it was probably one of the best 3-woods I’ve hit all year to about five feet. The ninth was playing downwind and I hit a driver there to about 20 feet and it was nice to hole that one as well.”
Australian Marcus Fraser is Hatton’s closest challenger, sitting one back after three birdies in the final four holes in a 67 at Kingsbarns, but Fleetwood, last year’s Race to Dubai winner, is lurking ominously. “This is the only event I played in through a Challenge Tour invitation and I want my picture on that bridge with the trophy,” said the Englishman after signing for a 67 at St Andrews, feeling a tad “frustrated” after taking some gloss off his day’s work with two late bogeys.
Ramsay will be playing in the final round but only in the team event. He finished with a flourish with five birdies in his last seven holes but, agonisingly, missed out by one in the event that mattered. “It’s tough, but the simple solution is to play better,” he said. “My bad stuff is just too bad at the moment and three three-putts have cost me.”