Simon Yates, one of a rare breed of Scots who insists he cannot play golf in cold weather, confounded his own theory by moving effortlessly into a three-way tie for the lead after the first round of the dunhill links championship at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.
The 33 year old has spent the last ten years living an idyllic life on a beach condo in sundrenched Thailand, two hours south of Bangkok, and earning a decent crust on the Asian Tour.
Playing only his second round over the Old Course at the Home of Golf, Yates gathered in six birdies and did not drop a single shot as he fired a six under par 66, a score matched in the grouping immediately behind him by Denmark’s Søren Hansen with Ireland’s Gary Murphy becoming the third member of the leading triumvirate with a 66 at Carnoustie.
Ironically, Yates represented Scotland as a downhill skier – an unusual passion for a man with an aversion to the cold! – but visited Thailand with a fellow Scottish professional, Kenny Walker, ten years ago for a six week holiday and never returned.
He laughed: “Give me temperatures of 95 to 100 fahrenheit. That’s the kind of temperature I enjoy playing in. Normally when it’s cold I don’t play so well so I suppose this is a bit of a surprise to me. I just like the heat on my back. It makes you feel looser but when it gets cold and windy I start feeling stiff and don’t feel I can really rip the ball.”
Wearing the traditional woolly hat and swaddled in several layers of clothing to combat the chilly north wind, Yates admitted that the prospect of chasing a card in Europe or the United States doesn’t really interest him. His ambitions do not extend much beyond a lazy day on the beach and a visit to his favourite local restaurant where lunch costs the princely sum of one pound.
Meanwhile Hansen, the 2002 Irish Open champion, took his cue from former football star, Ruud Gullit, as he started and finished with a pair of birdies in his round of 66. The pairing of Hansen and Gullit dovetailed superbly to be two strokes behind the Pro-Am leaders, South African based Scot, Doug McGuigan, and his partner, American Frank Keener.
The Dane explained; “It was great playing with Ruud. I could see what made him such a great footballer. He is very positive and determined and I think that attitude rubbed off on me.”
On a personal level Hansen was thrilled to shoot 66, which is substantially better than his previous attempts over the Old Course. He said: “That is the first time I’ve broken par here and the first time I’ve made a par at the Road Hole. That’s the thing about St Andrews – you have to learn to steer your way round. It’s a learning process and maybe I am getting there at last!”
At Carnoustie, Murphy had to combat not only one of the world’s toughest links courses, but a severe bout of flu which caused him to take to bed earlier in the week and has left him feeling poorly. Despite those obstacles, the Irishman did not drop a single stroke against the card and finished ahead of a world class field including Ireland’s Darren Clarke, who shot a 67 at Carnoustie and South African Nick Price, who signed for a 68.
Murphy said: “This is the first time I’ve played Carnoustie. I walked it on Sunday and I was going to play on Monday but I was in my sick bed. It’s a fabulous golf course, though, and if the wind gets up you could shoot anything.”
Five players lie in ambush for the leaders just one stroke adrift – Clarke, Welshman Jamie Donaldson, David Howell of England and Ireland’s Peter Lawrie. Clarke, one of the tournament favourites and a skilled artiste in windy conditions, commented: “We were fortunate with the weather. I am very pleased with the way I played, too. I controlled my ball flight for the majority of the day.”
Clarke currently lies second behind Ernie Els of South Africa – who opened with a level par 72 at Carnoustie – in the Volvo Order of Merit, but such are the riches at stake this week that the Ulsterman could stake a serious claim to win the Harry Vardon Trophy.
“I would love to win the Volvo Order of Merit” stated Clarke. “It has been one of my goals for a long, long time. But I have to play exceptionally well to catch Ernie because I am sure he is going to play exceptionally well too. I will have to do my best to catch him.”
Price, making his first appearance in the dunhill links championship, was enthusiastic about the event, now in its third year. He said: “This is a great format. It was great to get an invite from Johann Rupert (of dunhill) and I hit the ball really well today”.
Leading the way at Kingsbarns were England’s Simon Dyson and Maarten Lafeber of the Netherlands on 68, four under par.
Defending champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland opened with a level par 72 at Carnoustie but conceded: “I am not making things happen at the moment.”
Norway’s Henrik Bjornstad carded his second hole in one on The European Tour at Carnoustie, acing the 13th with an eight iron from 169 yards.