Laird leads way after finding missing links

October 8, 2010

THERE'S nothing worse for a Scottish golfer than thinking they've lost their touch on a links. Martin Laird was worried that might be the case before receiving a timely reassurance in the opening round of the Dunhill Links Championship.

"I wanted to prove I can play links golf because my record at Turnberry and St Andrews [he missed the cut in the Open Championship at both venues] these last two years wasn't very good," said the 27-year-old Scot after firing a six-under-par 66 at Kingsbarns. "This was much better."

It was good enough to earn him a share of the lead in the GBP3.1 million event with two players who were in action at St Andrews - Dane Thomas Bjorn and Argentine Ricardo Gonzalez - as well as Dutchman Martin Lafeber, who probably got off to the best start of all up at Carnoustie, where he birdied six of the last seven holes.

Laird, who is playing in the pro-am event for the first time, bagged six birdies, including two in the last three holes, in a flawless round carved out immediately behind his fellow Scot and Ryder Cup-winning captain, Colin Montgomerie.

Due to the combination of the time difference, flying over from his home in Arizona on Sunday and a practice round at St Andrews on Monday afternoon, Laird didn't see as much of the Celtic Manor match as he would have liked. Even so, his appetite has been whetted for the next encounter, at Medinah in two years' time.

"It would be the pinnacle for me - you just have to look and see how much fun they have," he admitted. "I know they say it's the most pressured they've ever been, but they also have fun. Anytime you see that it's going to be a goal.

"I won't do anything different [with his schedule]. If I do very well next year then I would come over and try and get more [Ryder Cup] points; that would be the situation that I'd change."

Laird, who is getting married to American fiancee Maegan a fortnight after next year's Open Championship at Royal St George's, insisted he has not been scarred mentally by the three-putt on the 72nd green that cost him The Barclays, the opening event in the FedEx Cup play-offs.

He lost to Matt Kuchar in a play-off in New Jersey six weeks ago, but is confident his game is improving all the time and is looking forward to testing himself in the majors next year, having also secured places already at The Masters and US Open. "I'm surprised at how well I took it [losing The Barclays]. You look back and think what a chance, but I played so well and didn't feel I had my best game. It wasn't as if I played as well as I could and came up short. It gave me confidence even though it didn't work out," said Laird.

"If I get better on the greens and keep my ball-striking where it was I can move up the world rankings and challenge in the majors. You just have to look at [Martin] Kaymer and [Graeme] McDowell and that gives me the motivation."

Having been one of Montgomerie's vice-captains in Wales, Bjorn, who led on his own 12 months ago after an opening 64 at Kingsbarns before falling away to finish just outside the top 40, arrived in Scotland feeling a tad rusty. Unlike 2004, however, when he was also one of Bernhard Langer's vice-captains for the win at Oakland Hills, the Dane made sure he didn't overdo the celebrations this time around.

"I kind of knew how much it would take out of me and how much it would affect the week after," he said after an effort that was made by an outward 31, five-under. "So I knew straight away on Monday night that I had to get myself to bed and not stay up until four o'clock.

"I have had a really good rest and, even after ten days without a golf club in my hand, I felt I was hitting it decently. I got myself in the right frame of mind, too."

Gonzalez birdied the last for his 66 on the Old Course, while Lafeber stormed home in 31 after producing that amazing finish at Carnoustie.

Of the nine Ryder Cup heroes in the field - they were all in action at Kingsbarns yesterday and move on to St Andrews today - Martin Kaymer did the best of them with a 68, followed by Ross Fisher (69), Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood (70), Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington (71), Francesco Molinari (72), brother Edoardo (73) and Peter Hanson (74).

As for the other Scots, Alan McLean had a 68 at St Andrews, where 2004 winner Stephen Gallacher signed for a 69, a score matched by Richie Ramsay and Andrew Coltart at Carnoustie and Kingsbarns respectively.

The worst round of the day was an 82 by Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie, the course where he lost the 1999 Open to Paul Lawrie with a triple-bogey seven on the final hole. This time the Frenchman had a six there, bogeyed eight other holes and did not manage a single birdie.

At least he's still in the event. Australian Michael Curtain was disqualified at St Andrews for practising his putting after the completion of a hole.

Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the League Managers' Association in England, and South African George Coetzee are leading the team event on 60, two shots ahead of Lawrie and his long-time partner in this event, Martin Gilbert, as well as Lisa O'Hurley, wife of American comedian John, who is also in the field, and Mikko Ilonen.