Spooky goings on almost put the hocus-pocus on Carl Mason’s bid to win a record-setting fourth English Open title at The Midas English Open, but he blew away the early cob-webs with a round of 69 to lead at the St Mellion International Hotel, Golf and Country Club.
The Englishman is one stroke ahead of South Africa’s John Bland, Australia’s Stewart Ginn, Scotland’s Bill Longmuir, and fellow countrymen Nick Job, David J Russell and Martin Poxon, Northern Ireland’s Jimmy Heggarty and Trinidad’s Alan Mew. They all shot two under par rounds of 70 over the testing Nicklaus Course on day one of the European Seniors Tour event.
However, given the ghostly happenings that threatened to derail his pre-tournament preparations, defending champion Mason was a man very happy with his three under par score, given how things went bump in the night.
For the St Mellion guesthouse where he is staying nearby is reported to be haunted – and Mason awoke in the middle of the night to some ghostly antics which he thought was fellow lodge room-mate, Ireland’s Eamonn Darcy, moving about.
Mason said: “It was unbelievable. I was standing outside the lodge last night, and there’s a guy sitting out in one of the cottages. He said: ‘Are you Carl Mason?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Are you staying there.’ I said: ‘Yes.’ ‘With the ghost,’ he said. I said: ‘What?’ as I don’t believe in anything like that.
“Then, in the middle of the night, I woke up in a cold sweat. Alright, the duvet was half off me, but I was in such a cold sweat. So I’m lying there in bed, I got the duvet back all over me, and then I heard a switch click in my bathroom. I thought, ‘It must be Eamonn’ but it wasn’t him. I promise you – I thought someone had flicked on the switch. The light didn’t come on, but it sent the shivers right through me. I wish the bloke had never said anything to me about it!
“I probably won’t get a wink of sleep tonight. It’s weird, because I never wake up like that, and when the light switch went off, woah. I was shivering all over. I may yet move out!”
Teeing off at 10am, with David J Russell and Gordon J Brand, Mason went out in 36 after trading a birdie at the second with a bogey at the third, but then found the form that has seen him win three consecutive English Open titles.
The 54 year old fired birdies at holes ten, 15 and 17 to take command, yet said of his score: “I just played very steadily. I didn’t putt fantastically, just played steady. With the course playing softer, it plays a lot easier than last year. You can hit the ball at the flags and down the fairways knowing it’s going to stop. Last year, it was bouncing all over the place. So I think it’s playing fine – but we’ll see what the forecast is for the weekend, because it’s not good.”
Taking the form he showed in winning Thursday’s pro-am into his opening round, 61 year old John Bland shot a two under par 70, recording six birdies in his opening round.
He said: “I got off to a funny start as I dropped two shots on the third hole with a double bogey, but I wasn’t really worried, funnily enough, about them.
“I birdied eight and nine from ten feet, so turned level, and then birdied the par five 12th, from ten feet too. I hit a six iron on the short 14th to two feet, and then birdied 16, from four feet, after dropping a shot at 15. I drove into the rough there. I then birdied 17 from two feet but dropped a shot at 18 after again driving into the rough.
“So I am very happy with 70. It’s playing ever so long and tough. I was level par in the pro-am but had six birdies, so felt good going out today. It’s a hard golf course – one you have to be careful with all the time.”
Heggarty, who had five birdies and three bogeys in his round, said: “It was almost a 69, but I bogeyed the last hole. I just tried to hit my driver too hard and pulled it left. I recovered well and hit a good chip, but missed the par putt on the left.
“As I said after the two pro-ams, when I didn’t play that well, my goal was to beat the course, and I did that. So I’m happy with that. The course is playing a little more softly, and a bit more friendly, so you can hit into position and know it’s going to stay there. Last year, it was hard and bouncing all over the place. I hit a lot of shots today into the right position. My game is back to where it should be. One shot back is nothing on this course, so I’m looking forward to the weekend.”
Preferred lies were in operation, given the wetness of the Nicklaus Course, which was swamped with an inch of rain in just 15 minutes on Wednesday during the first pro-am, forcing play to be suspended for an hour.
Two days on, holes two and five were still quite sodden, so tournament directors took the decision to allow preferred lies on closely mown areas. Not that it made the Nicklaus Course any less daunting, as only 14 of the 72 players bettered par.
Bland’s playing partner, Scotland’s John Chillas, got off to a great start, with birdies at the first and third holes, to go out in 34. He dropped a shot at the par three 11th, but roared straight back with a birdie four at the tree-lined par five 12th, only for the 13th to frustrate with a bogey.
A three-putt on the 17th took the 56 year old from Aberdeen back to level par, the score he ended up signing for.
Chillas said: “I’m delighted with 72 because, for me, it’s the most difficult course in the world. Okay, I’ve played courses in more difficult conditions, but here, there’s no let-up. Everything about it is hard. Off the tee it’s tight, there’s the swirling wind, it’s playing long after all the rain, there are tough greens – it’s relentless. You have to be able to hit every shot in the bag.
“I had more birdie chances on a couple of holes on the front nine I didn’t take, but I’m delighted with a 72. Three birdies and three bogeys was an even trade. I don’t think you’ll get ten to 12 under par winning this week. John’s 70 was a very good score.”
Australia’s Stewart Ginn, runner-up last year, again found St Mellion to his liking. The 58 year old fired birdies at holes three, five, six and nine. The only blemishes came with a dropped stroke at the fourth and 13th holes.
Ginn, who was also the runner-up at The Senior Open Championship at Muirfield, closed with five straight pars to once more place himself firmly in contention.
Bill Longmuir, who had three birdies and a bogey in his round, said of his 70: “All in all I am quite happy with it. It’s never easy when this wind gets up. I hit a lot of better putts and I am getting better. I’m not quite finishing it off – but I’m getting better. The putter feels like it’s more in control.
“I three-putted the par five 16th, which was such a shame, as I pitched it two feet from the hole, with a nice high, soft five wood, and that was very demoralising. But I’m in the hunt and I’m happy to be there. There’s a long way to go.”