The best score on this occasion was 69, achieved by two players – Chilean Felipe Aguilar and Australian Scott Hend. Just 20 players out of 156 broke par. Poor Jin Jeong, who was crowned Amateur champion at Muirfield in 2010 but can’t make a cut for toffee these days, crashed to an error-strewn 88. After this, verdicts on the Inverness venue are being hastily re-assessed. Include Graeme McDowell on that list.
After playing in the first of this event’s visits here in 2011, he was massively unimpressed. Or that’s what comments he made two years later indicated, anyway. The 2010 US Open champion said the event had “lost its identity and prestige” by moving to Castle Stuart, which he said “probably hasn’t been strong enough the past couple of years” due to it being “too one-dimensional”. Forget all of that.
McDowell marked his first visit back with a 70 – later matched by Padraig Harrington – to nestle himself behind the two leaders and was man enough to admit he’d got it wrong. In this case, first impressions definitely didn’t count. “Coming from a guy who inadvertently criticised the place a few years back not trying to do so, I am pleasantly surprised how good the golf course is,” admitted the Ulsterman. “It is completely different to 2011, since when a couple of nice bunkers have been added, and it really does feel like it’s designed for this [westerly] wind direction.”
McDowell’s mood may have been helped by a round that contained four birdies, but there was no disguising the sincerity of his fresh opinion. “It’s a beautiful piece of land here and has a really nice architectural mix of short par-4s and tough 5s and it’s a helluva lot more narrow than I remember it,” he continued.
“People are going to say I’m full of s**t, having criticised it pretty heavily, and now I’m saying it’s good. But I’m allowed to change my mind and I like the golf course. I’m enjoying it even though it was tough today.” In fairness to McDowell, he contacted Martin Gilbert, the Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive, to apologise for how his comments had come across soon after they appeared. While McDowell was unable to make amends by playing in the 2014 event at Royal Aberdeen due to family affairs, he returned to the tournament at Gullane 12 months ago and was one of the first big names to commit to this week’s field, too.
“Myself and Martin Gilbert have gotten a little closer over the years,” revealed McDowell, smiling, before jocularly adding: “It was an attempt to kind of get the Irish Open thrust into a better spot in the calendar more than anything. I was just being a little selfish from that point of view.”
The first person to shake McDowell’s hand on his arrival here earlier in the week was Stuart McColm, Castle Stuart’s general manager. “The welcome’s been fantastic,” confessed McDowell. “I love coming back to Scotland. They look after me here.”
As a gentle breeze that was blowing first thing in the morning increased to boisterous gusts of 30mph, golf balls moved on the greens. First Thomas Bjorn then Ryan Evans, a replacement for Chris Wood after the PGA champion withdrew with a neck injury, had to call in officials before having the confidence to convert putts at the 12th. That was despite the greens having been left longer than normal tournament speed.
In truth, it didn’t look like a day that was enjoyable, but the winner here in 2013 begged to differ. “It was difficult but not unfair by any means,” said Phil Mickelson after signing for a 76. “I played well enough but struggled on the greens, where I lost three or four shots. But I am hoping it’s like this for the next three rounds as I think it is fun.”