Tapio Pulkkanen moved into the lead after the opening round of the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge hosted by Macdonald Hotels and Resorts, one shot clear of a chasing pack which included Sebastian Soderberg - fresh from playing a practice round with Dustin Johnson at last week’s U.S. Open.
Pulkkanen only discovered he was playing at Macdonald Spey Valley Golf Club on Tuesday evening before flying to Scotland on Wednesday, but the Finn showed no signs of fatigue as he carded nine birdies in a seven under opening round 64.
The 26 year old, who was forced to take a week off last week to recover from chickenpox, admitted that he had a look at the leaderboard on the 18th hole only to realise his birdie putt was for the outright lead, and he duly converted it to edge clear at the summit.
“I really wanted to make the birdie on the last as I saw there were six players on six under,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure I went seven under. I was actually first reserve for a very long time for this event.
“I only found out I was playing on Tuesday, and travelled on Wednesday. I was really sick last week and I couldn't practice any golf, so it feels a little bit surprising. I've never been the leader after a first round so it's a nice feeling.”
Soderberg, meanwhile, put his Major experience to good use with a six under par 65 at the sun-kissed Highlands venue. The Swede, who won the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open in March, made his Major debut last week at Oakmont Country Club having pre-qualified from Walton Heath via a play-off.
I was really pumped for Dustin and it was fun for me, for him to win the week that I played with him
His American dream got even better when he was treated to a practice round alongside his fellow former Coastal Carolina University alumnus Johnson, who would eventually go on to claim a maiden triumph in one of golf’s big four events in dramatic circumstances.
Although Soderberg did not make it to the weekend in Pittsburgh, it was an unforgettable experience which has given his confidence a huge boost and he believes it contributed to his superb opening round in Aviemore.
“I played really well for the first 13 holes today,” said the 25 year old. “I hit a lot of fairways and had a few good looks at birdie. I made an unfortunate bogey at seven and then missed a couple of good opportunities on the last few holes but overall it was a really good round.
“I was disappointed missing the cut at Oakmont, I thought I had a chance to make it but I was excited to get going playing again this week. Being at an event like that definitely gives you motivation - I just felt like I wanted to play today and it was a good day in the end.
“I played with Dustin on the Monday – I’ve played with him before from college – but obviously he’s a really good player. When he gets it going in tournaments he just murders the ball and that was the key at Oakmont.
“I was really excited, really pumped for him. He should have won a Major a long time ago so it was only a matter of time and it was fun for me, for him to win the week that I played with him.
“I think there was one drive where I was only maybe ten yards behind him – you should definitely never compare drives with him because he’s probably the best driver in the world. Other than that his game is really solid so it definitely gives you an insight into what parts of your game you need to get better at.”
Soderberg was one of six players tied for second place on a packed leaderboard at the stunning Highlands venue.
Among the others were Englishman Robert Coles, who lost out to compatriot Jack Senior in a three-way play-off in this event last year, and is hoping to go one better this time around. He got off to a perfect start with a round which comprised seven birdies and one bogey.
“I am delighted with that,” said the three-time Challenge Tour winner. “It was a really nice day and the course was in great condition and for me it’s a very good score because I haven’t had many this year so I’m very pleased.
“I’m just happy to get a decent round in. I played pretty solid and hit some shots close which I haven’t been doing recently and it makes everything easier when you have shorter putts.
“I’d like to think I can go one better this week but it’s a long way off right now and the way I’ve been playing, I’m just happy to get good scores in at the moment and build on that but if I get a chance to go for a win I’ll be very grateful for it.”
There was cause for celebration for another Swede in the opening round of the €250,000 event as Anton Karlsson holed out with his final shot of the day for a hole-in-one at the tenth hole and a five under par 66.
Incredibly, the 22 year old had come close to an ace on two separate occasions prior to that, having teed off at the 11th hole.
“It was pretty special,” said the player from just outside Stockholm. “It was just a six iron, I hit it really well and held it against the wind and it just dropped into the hole. I could see it from the tee.
“I was pretty close a couple of times today. I almost made one on the 16th too and tapped in for birdie, then on the fourth it looked like it was going in too and I made another birdie too. My playing partner said to me jokingly, ‘don’t worry, you’re going to make one today’, so it was pretty crazy that one ended up at home in the end.”
Peter Whiteford was the leading Scot as he joined Karlsson and six others in a share of eighth place.