Richard James produced the finest performance of his European Challenge Tour career to take a two-shot lead after the first round of the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge hosted by Macdonald Hotels & Resorts.
Illness has hampered much of James’ season so far – a burst appendix suffered in May ruling him out for five weeks – but the Welshman showed he had the stomach for the fight in Aviemore today.
Starting on the 11th the 25 year old made a fast start. A birdie on the par four 12th – his second hole of the day – was followed by an eagle at the 13th, pushing James to the top of the leaderboard.
The man from Aberystwyth, who earned his playing rights for the 2017 Road to Oman by finishing in the top five on the satellite EuroPro Tour last season, continued to get the better of the wind and the rain to card six more gains and post a six under par 65.
After an impressive opening round, James was delighted with his efforts having come so close to missing the tournament.
“I didn’t think I would be here to be honest,” he said. “I was 17th reserve come Sunday, but I thought I should just gamble and come up here – and I’m really happy that so far it has paid off.
“I played really well and holed some nice putts – especially the one on four that was just off the green. I knew in that weather that you were going to hit some bad shots, so I just tried to commit to all my lines and be smart off the tee. I tried not to be too aggressive.
“I took my chances really well when I had them after some good iron shots. It was really tough out there so I am very happy with such a good performance today.
“It was brutal out there. The wind was up and down and gusting a lot, I hit one on nine which I thought was good but it went well over the green. I am happy with my round though and will definitely take a 65.
“It is a really nice course and I think it suits me – especially off the tee. You also have to be a good iron player to hit it in to the right parts of the green, and I feel that is also a good aspect of my game.
“It has been a difficult start to the year. I had my appendix out midway through May, I missed five weeks of golf, so it has been quite hard to get back into things.
“The scoring is a lot better and the cuts are a lot lower on the Challenge Tour compared to the EuroPro Tour, but it is still playing golf at the end of the day – so we’ll see what happens this season.”
Two back from James are Spain’s Pedro Oriol, Northern Ireland’s Dermot McElroy and Sweden’s Mikael Lundberg, who are all tied on four under par.
The shot of the day came from Italy’s Lorenzo Gagli, who made an albatross at the par five 13th at Macdonald Spey Valley Golf Club, holing out for two from 246 yards with a three iron.
“I hit a perfect shot,” he said. “At the 13th the wind was helping from the right, and I hit a low three iron. I didn’t see it go in but it kind of bounced first and ran on into the hole – it was a great feeling as it was my first ever albatross."