Exactly a year to the day he claimed his course record in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, Tommy Fleetwood returns to Carnoustie having ended his Ryder Cup hangover in abrupt fashion at Kingsbarns yesterday.
It looked like a right good one at three-over after 10, in tricky conditions on the course you’re supposed to make hay on in this format, although steady winds of 20 mph gusting to 30 mph made it incredibly tricky yesterday.
But Fleetwood recovered his composure in fine style with four birdies the rest of the way, a 71 which lies just three off the lead shared by Australia’s Marcus Fraser, who shot a 68 at Carnoustie, and Matt Wallace of England, aiming for a fourth win on tour this year, who shot 68 on the Old Course.
There’s a fine spread of players on three-under, including the now veteran Irishmen Paul McGinley, playing better than he did in the very different conditions of the Senior Open in July, and – if you believe what’s being widely whispered – the next Ryder Cup captain-elect Padraig Harrington.
Tyrrell Hatton (70), going for a third successive Dunhill Links title, and Brooks Koepka (70) are not far off the lead. Best placed Scot is Stephen Gallacher after a one-under 71 at Kingsbarns, with Connor Syme next best after a par round of 72 on the Old Course.
“It’s nice to get a start like that and still beat the golf course,” said Fleetwood. “It’s kind of a little goal I had in mind.
“It was always going to be tough (to get back), but even at 3 over, I thought it’s still a chance if you hit good shots.
“Just see what the weather brings, really, but we’ve got to play two courses that I really like.
“The wind can do funny things to your swing. But I’ve been swinging well and hopefully tomorrow I can go out and make some birdies and continue on the momentum.”
Kingsbarns is different from the other two courses even in a strong wind, pointed out Fleetwood.
“St Andrews you go out with one wind and come back with another. Carnoustie is probably not the nicest to play in gale force winds,” he continued.
“Here, everything is so open. A lot of the greens are raised. If you get Kingsbarns on a lovely, calm day, it’s like such a lovely place to play because you really can get a score. Today was just a grind.”
The wind was certainly no easier at Carnoustie, which made Fraser’s 68 – one of only five rounds par or better on this year’s Open links – the probable round of the day.
He had only one dropped shot, at the fourth, and got his birdies at the long holes on the back nine – the 12th plays as a par five in this format, and it was a par four in July – and the bonus was a 30 foot birdie putt rattling in at the 16th.
“I just sort of stuck it out most of the day, waited for the putts to drop and at the end I made a couple of good par saves,” said the 40-year-old, who last won two years ago in Malaysia.
“It’s brutal out there, that’s as strong as I’ve played the golf course, I think.”
“You’ve got to go out and just keep it in play, and you’re going to get rewarded. On Carnoustie, it’s hard to keep it in play sometimes, but you’ve got to try and avoid those bunkers, and luckily enough I avoided all of them apart from one.”
Wallace, who was overlooked for a wildcard for the Ryder Cup despite his three wins this year, would certainly make some sort of statement by winning here this week. Playing at St Andrews, he burst to life with four birdies in five holes from the fifth, and picked up another the last to complete his 68.
Harrington’s 69 came after he barely hit balls last week while on vice-captain duties at Le Golf National, and he admitted to being “pleasantly surprised”.
“I thought I would never be ready for today, but there you go, a bit of focus, being in competition sharpens you a little bit.”
Back to Carnoustie today, but even Harrington, with two Dunhills and an Open under his belt there, doesn’t feel he can relax.
“I have good history there and it’s nice for me to go back, but Carnoustie is a tough golf course,” he said.
“I for one always go into Carnoustie with a bit of trepidation. Just because I’ve won there, doesn’t mean I’m going to breathe easy around there tomorrow.”
Gallacher, playing at Kingbarns, suffered two double bogeys at the sixth and 15th but five birdes as well. At 90th on the race to Dubai, he’s the home-based player with the least to fear about retaining his tour rights, but a good finish here could move him up into the big-earning end of season events.
For Syme, on home ground, a finish like last year’s tie for 15th on an invitation would do wonders for his prospects for staying inside the top 110 who retain their cards. A solid 72 in the testing conditions, crowned by a birdie three on the last, put him in decent shape.
Richie Ramsay, David Drysdale and invitee Sam Locke all had opening one-over-par 73s.