As the only man alive who has won a top-flight professional event at Royal Portrush, Jamie Donaldson’s desire to play his way into next week’s Open Championship is more than understandable. And with an opening 64, the Welshman put himself in the frame at the ASI Scottish Open.
But then, with 53 players within four shots of the lead, this is already a very crowded picture, after a first day when the scoring was ridiculously low on a course which does not begin to do justice to the term 'Scottish links'.
Not that Donaldson was moaning following a blemish-free day featuring seven birdies and 11 pars. The 43-year-old cut a contented figure afterwards and underlined why it is so important for him to earn one of three Open spots on offer here, and to return to the Northern Irish course where he famously broke his maiden tag at the Irish Open on his 255th attempt.
“I want to play at Portrush so badly, and obviously part of that is that I’ve got so many good memories,” Donaldson said, thinking back to that emotional 2012 triumph, when the Irish Open returned to the course following a 59-year absence. “You always want to play in The Open, but that applies even more so this year, especially for me.”
Donaldson could be in County Antrim anyway, regardless of an entry, as he has been offered analysis work by several media outlets. Yet that is not an option for the player who earned the winning point for Europe at the 2014 Ryder Cup.
Donaldson was ranked in the top 25 that season but, having won only £10,000 so far this campaign, he is down in a humbling 1,199th place after four missed cuts in succession.
“If I’m not at Portrush, it means that I need the practice and should be on the range for that four days instead of behind a microphone,” Donaldson said. “I had a wrist operation at the end of last year and am finally playing without pain again. I’ve only got a Tour card this year on a one-time lifetime exemption of career money list, and need to secure playing privileges from the rest of the year.
“So I need to get cracking and put some results together. Obviously I could take care of a lot of things by Sunday. Three more rounds like this would take care of it.”
Well, perhaps, although as level-par rounds left players outside the top 118, one cannot be sure how far into the minus figures the eventual champion will have to venture. The rains earlier in the week have turned the Renaissance into a dartboard and made it a wholly inappropriate warm-up venue for the Open.
In truth, Renaissance is not a true links and it is a wonder why – beyond the obvious financial incentives – the organisers came to this particular course in North Berwick. It is hardly as if there is a paucity of alternatives in the home of golf.
Certainly Henrik Stenson sounded bemused after a 65 that left him two off the pace set by Italians Edoardo Molinari and Nino Bertasio, American Matt Kuchar and France’s Romain Wattel. When asked if this was a worthwhile preparation for Portrush, the 2016 Open champion said: “No.” Would Stenson have preferred a more “linksy” challenge? “Yes.” The Swede was persuaded to explain why.
“Look, this is a nice piece of land,” Stenson, 43, said, “but the design is not what we are used to seeing when we are talking links golf. Dundonald [the host in 2017] was similar. If it starts blowing real hard and you want to knock it down, you have ridges and slightly raised greens, so it is hard to play the shots you would like to play.
“As of now, the biggest difference, or the one thing we are not super happy about, is that we have had so much rain and it is getting soft. You want to be in the mindset of landing a pitching wedge five or six paces short of the pin and skipping forward, but all of a sudden they are now spinning back. It’s almost like you have to force yourself in the other direction.”
So a long way from ideal, but the first prize of just under £1 million will surely keep minds focused. Rory McIlroy shot a satisfactory four-under 67, while England’s Andy Sullivan and Lee Slattery are also on seven-under, one ahead of another huge group on six under, containing Ian Poulter and Oliver Wilson.