Oliver Wilson (Getty Images)
Former Ryder Cup player Oliver Wilson may have lost his European Tour card since recording nine runner-up finishes between 2006 and 2009, but he now has the chance to secure his return at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
Wilson carded a first round of 64 at Kingsbarns, one of the three courses used for the $5 million event, to claim a share of the lead on eight under par with compatriots Tom Lewis and Richard McEvoy, France's Alexandre Kaleka and Chile's Mark Tullo.
And if the World Number 489 needs any further motivation to regain the form which saw him finish seventh on The Race to Dubai in 2009, he need look no further than his former Ryder Cup partner Henrik Stenson, who was 230th in the Official World Golf Ranking at the start of 2012 but is now fourth and $11,000,000 richer following his Tour Championship and FedEx Cup triumph on Sunday.
"I'm playing a lot better," said Wilson, who combined with Stenson to recover from four down to beat Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim in the foursomes at Valhalla in 2008.
"For the first time in probably over a year actually, I have some control over my shots and am able to hit the shots and trust it under pressure as well. I'm driving the ball way, way better, which is essentially the thing that had disappeared. I wasn't able to get it in play, wasn't able to get it on fairways and, in any wind, I was really in trouble.
"It was nice of Dunhill and Johann (Rupert, tournament host) to give me an invite to this event, because it's going to be a great test."
Wilson, who has finished second and fifth in his last three events on the Challenge Tour and came home in 30 today with four birdies and an eagle, added: "We've played some good courses the last few weeks and I've played well and that's built my confidence. I have a chance to get my card at the end of the year a few various ways and obviously there is a chance this week as well.
"I just have to keep playing well. Wherever I play, if I play well, it's only a matter of time before I get to I where want to get to, so that's the most important thing. The game is improving all the time and everything's settled down and moving in the right direction. It's nice because it's been a while."
It has also been a while since Lewis burst onto the scene with an opening 65 at Royal St George's in 2011, the lowest score by an amateur in Open Championship history giving him a share of the lead.
He went on to finish 30th and win the Silver Medal as leading amateur before turning professional and winning the Portugal Masters in just his third event in the paid ranks, but finished 117th on The Race to Dubai in 2012 and is currently 155th with only two events remaining after this week to get into the top 110 to retain his card for 2014.
"Winning so early helped me compete at the top level but at the same time probably hurt me as well by expecting too much, too early," said Lewis, 22, whose only bogey came when he lost a ball on the 10th.
"I'm learning and it's a shame that I haven't performed better over the last couple of years, but when I'm back at the top, I'll be ready to be back at the top whereas before I probably wasn't.
"You just want to give up half the time. It's a good job but any job is tough, especially at the level here the guys are playing at. Obviously I've been through tough times and been upset a lot of the time, and it's actually been probably the toughest two years of my life."
McEvoy is another player struggling to keep his card at 171st in The Race to Dubai, but covered the front nine - his back nine - in 30 at Kingsbarns with five birdies, one bogey and an eagle at the ninth.
"Three years ago I finished well (eighth) in this event to keep my card, but at the moment I'm so far down in the back of my mind I need to win, really. But if I go out, I need to go out with a bang, so I've got to give it a shot, and that's what I did today."
All five leaders are currently outside the top 110, and 114th-place Tullo knows only too well the heartbreak of missing out at this stage of the season – he finished 119th in 2011 when 118 players kept their cards, before returning to The European Tour via the Challenge Tour.
He partnered Kaleka, who has made just one cut since finishing second in Russia to drop to 126th.
“It was good,” said Tullo. “I played with Kaleka today, and we both got into a quick start, so we were feeding off each other with good shots, good birdies.
“I have to admit I do enjoy links golf courses. I like to use my imagination around the greens sometimes.”
Kaleka added: “No bogeys, eight birdies, so that's a dream round. It's always special to play the Old Course, so I'm very pleased with that day and I hope Sunday will be, as well.”
Arguably the best round of the day came from Welshman Jamie Donaldson, who returned a seven under 65 at Carnoustie to lie joint sixth with Scotland's George Murray and English trio Mark Foster, Matthew Baldwin and Tommy Fleetwood.