After seeing the Northern Open, graced and won by some outstanding players in the past, reduced to just 36 holes earlier in the season, this week’s Scottish PGA Championship at Downfield is taking place without a title sponsor.
In effect, the 132 players are competing for their own money, having each stumped up £120 to enter the circuit’s flagship tournament. Efforts were made to find a new title sponsor, but attracting backers at this level had already become difficult before Brexit became a factor.
Work is going on behind the scenes to try to avoid a similar scenario for an event that celebrated its 100th staging in 2016, but there is no denying this one is lacking lustre.
“It is still a great tournament, but it is disappointing about the prize fund,” said Paul O’Hara, the circuit’s dominant force in recent years, after getting his title bid off to a great start by carding a six-under-par 67 to share the lead.
“It is not the same as the last few years (it enjoyed an unbroken 20-year run at Gleneagles before this season’s switch) and everyone is saying the same thing. It feels like a sweep, similar to the Sprint Series events we play in, but over 72 holes.”
This title is the missing link on O’Hara’s Tartan Tour CV, having come close to landing it on a couple of occasions, notably when losing out to Gareth Wright in a play-off in 2016. After bursting out of the blocks - the North Lanarkshire Leisure-attached player was four-under after five holes - he is up and running once more.
“I got off to a good start,” said O’Hara, who is playing in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentorth in a fortnight’s time, of hitting a 5-iron to 12 feet for an eagle at the 11th – his second hole – before picking up birdies at the two other par-5s on the back nine, the 13th and 14th. “It was a case of then holding on a bit when the rain was heavy before I birdied four of the last six holes.
“I played here three times before in pro-ams, finishing in the two top or three each time, and I like the course. You’ve got to shape it, drive it well and hit good iron shots. It’s not just a case of poking it up the middle here. The greens are also slick, especially if you get on the wrong side of the hole. I think they must be running at 11 or 12 on the stimpmeter.
Clydeway Golf’s Graham Fox, the 2012 winner, birdied five holes in a row on the back nine before salvaging a great par at the last after finding a fairway bunker off the tee as he matched O’Hara’s effort. “The greens are fantastic, so I always felt like I could make some putts,” he said.
Bidding to repeat his 2000 triumph at a venue where he holds the course record, Alastair Forsyth carded five birdies, including four on the spin, to sit handily-placed on 70, a shot ahead of a group that includes another former European Tour player, Craig Lee. “This is a great golf course and it’s also in great condition,” he declared.
On a day when defending champion Greig Hutcheon had to settle for a 75 after starting with four straight bogeys, Heather MacRae signed for the same score in her first solo competitive outing since undergoing cancer surgery. “I made a couple of silly mistakes, but played okay otherwise,” she said.