You might not expect a Scotsman to be able to use extensive local knowledge around a golf course on the northern outskirts of Rome, but Raymond Russell employed exactly that to charge to top of the Roma Golf Open leaderboard at the halfway stage.
The Scot, back on Tour after spending the majority of the year crippled by the effects of a mysterious and debilitating viral condition, posted a second round of six under par 65 to establish a two shot lead over his countryman Callum Macaulay, the English pair of Lloyd Kennedy and Sam Little as well as Italian Gregory Molteni at the Olgiata Golf Club.
Molteni is not the only Italian on the leaderboard, with in form pair Andrea Pavan – who is playing his home course this week – and Federico Colombo sharing sixth spot on five under par, one stroke behind Germany’s Bernd Ritthammer going onto the weekend.
Russell’s extensive knowledge of this week’s host venue came, in the main, from his caddie for the first two rounds in Rome, the former club professional at Olgiata, Pete McEvoy, who has been a friend of Russell’s for many years and who is now the head professional at his home club, Old Fold Manor in Hertfordshire, England.
“I have had my friend Pete from back home on the bag for the first two rounds here. I know him from my club back home, Old Fold Manor, and he used to be the pro here,” Russell explained.
“My 65 was a good score today because conditions were tricky out there and the flags were tucked away. It was one of those days when you are playing for the most part to the middle of the greens and trying to take advantage of the par fives. It was a day to play smart and I managed to do that.”
Russell is just thankful to be competing after wondering at points during the year if he would ever get the chance to play at the top level given the crushing effects of his viral condition.
The 39 year old from Edinburgh suffered a prodigious loss of weight during his illness and was told by doctors during the height of his troubles that his body was operating on 15 per cent of its usual capacity.
“It feels great to be at the top of the leaderboard but to be honest it is just good to be back competing,” continued the Scot. “It’s been a tough year so to be back out here competing is very satisfying.
“They still have no idea what the virus was. All they can tell me is that it was a virus with similar symptoms to glandular fever. I was tested for almost everything – Hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, HIV, Dengue Fever, River Ross Fever – everything you can think of – and they still don’t know what it was exactly.”
While Russell is simply appreciating being able to play the game he loves to the kind of level that made him a European Tour champion at the 1996 Cannes Open, Macaulay and Kennedy are hoping to keep their 2012 European Tour dream alive by finishing high enough in the Eternal City to progress to the season-ending Grand Final in three weeks.
The Roma Golf Open is the penultimate event of the year and both players’ last chance to break into the top 45 in the Rankings and claim a Grand Final spot. Currently 61st, Macaulay needs to finish in the top three in Rome to earn the requisite €10,000 that would allow him to continue his quest to finish in the elite top 20 European Tour card-winning spots at the conclusion of the season finale.
“I was a bit too aggressive to start today and bogeyed the first but that was the only mistake I made all day,” said Macaulay. “I kind of hung in there for the rest of the front nine, made a good birdie at the ninth and that set me up for a good back nine with three more.
“I’ll just keep plodding along and see where it takes me on Sunday. I’m here to win the tournament – as I am every week I tee it up – and that mindset won’t change.”
Kennedy, meanwhile, is currently Ranked 49th and would be extremely unlucky not to qualify for the Grand Final by finishing sixth or better this weekend.
“It is a big week for us all but I really don’t want to set a target of how much money I need to get into that top 45,” said Kennedy. “I’m just wary of setting a target that I might achieve only to find out it’s not good enough. The best thing I can do is finish as high as I can at the weekend and see where that leaves me on Sunday night.”
For Little and Molteni, the goals for the remainder of the year are starkly contrasting with the Englishman looking to win the Rankings outright from his current position of second, some €12,000 behind Number One Tommy Fleetwood.
Fleetwood is three under in Rome and will be looking to close the five stroke gap on Little over the weekend in order to take as healthy a lead as possible to the Grand Final.
For Molteni, the Roma Golf Open, has given the Italian an opportunity to regain his best form having taken a three month break from the game this summer.
“I just needed to step back from the game and re-assess a few things,” explained the Italian. “I was a bit lost with the game to be honest but I think I am finding a better balance that allows me to really focus on my game and practice when I am at the golf course but then switch off completely when I leave at the end of the day.”