Ernie Els went lower than he had ever gone previously at Loch Lomond and ended the day occupying the highest position on the leaderboard in the rain-interrupted first round of The Barclays Scottish Open.
The South African with the midas touch in Scotland – he won the Scottish title at Loch Lomond in 2000 and the Open Championship at Muirfield 12 months ago – fired a wonderfully controlled seven under par 64 to open up a two stroke lead in the incomplete first round. That score was one stroke better than his previous best – a 65 in 1997 when he finished runner-up to Tom Lehman.
England’s David Howell shot a 66 to move into second place with Martin Maritz of South Africa, Australian O’Malley and two Prices – Phillip from Wales and Terry from Australia – on 67.
However there was scope for change at the top due to the four hour rain delay in the morning as Loch Lomond received a drenching from which it recovered remarkably well and the day ended in bright sunshine.
Els, though, was in imperious form following a two week break at his UK base of Wentworth. He had to admit that there was something in the Scottish air which inspired him to scale the heights.
“I don’t know what it is” he chuckled. “I started playing here in 1989. That was my first trip and I played in the St Andrews Links Trophy as an amateur. I remember Russell Claydon winning that one and I have always like playing links golf, not only here but in England and Ireland as well.
“I’m not sure what it is…maybe the scenery of something in the water!”
Els blazed a trail with the assistance of seven birdies. Starting at the tenth, he picked up three successive shots from the 13th and holed from 18 feet at the 18th to reach the turn in 31 before drawing clear of the field with further birdies at the first, sixth and seventh.
“I’m very pleased with that” he said. “It was difficult. I wasn’t looking forward to it much when I saw the weather forecast before I went to sleep, so all in all it was a good day. My form is certainly better than it was a year ago but that doesn’t mean I am going to win next week!”
Howell has shown signs of a renaissance following 18 months in which he broke his arm while out running last spring and sustained a should injury which curtailed the early part of the current season. However he played some sterling golf to finish second behind Philip Golding in the Open de France.
He said: “I was out for 11 weeks with the broken arm and seven weeks with the shoulder injury, but maybe that is an omen in that I sprained my ankle playing tennis in 1998 and missed eight weeks before coming back and winning the Dubai Desert Classic.
Howell’s round was all the more noteworthy for the fact that he suffered a double bogey seven just four holes into his round, a blow which could have affected his equilibrium. Instead, he was galvanised into action, picking up six birdies from that point to finish on 66.
O’Malley, who won the Scottish Open at Gleneagles 11 years ago, still holds that memory dear. After a smooth 67 he commented: “That was certainly the greatest thing I’ve done. It’s a big trophy and I always like to play in Scotland where I have fond memories.”
Meanwhile Phillip Price’s recollections of winning are a touch more vivid. The man who captured the Smurfit European Open last Sunday started slowly but gathered his composure after the rain delay and compiled a four under par round to join O’Malley, his namesake, Terry Price, and Maritz.
The popular Welshman admitted: “I struggled with my concentration a bit out there but putted well. I was concerned how I would feel after Sunday. I didn’t really have a clue and had problems with my concentration initially, but I felt it I paid a little more attention I would be fine.”