Scottish Open: Justin Thomas, Lee Westwood and Jon Rahm on the tail of leader Jack Senior at Renaissance Club
Jack Senior says he normally keeps his “foot on the pedal” when sitting at the top of the leaderboard. He’ll certainly need to in the next three days of the abrdn Scottish Open as the big guns are already lurking ominously at The Renaissance Club.
Senior, who has tasted success in Scotland on both the Challenge Tour and PGA EuroPro Tour, as well as being part of a winning Walker Cup team in the home of golf, took pride of place in the opening round of the $8m Rolex Series event with a seven-under-par 64 in fairly benign conditions.
His closest challengers, though, are world No 3 Justin Thomas and European No 1 Lee Westwood after they carded matching 66s on the East Lothian coast, with world No 1 and US Open champion Jon Rahm in a group one further back.
On a day when Rory McIlroy had to settle for a 70 in the company of Thomas and Rahm, Richie Ramsay, Grant Forrest, David Law and Connor Syme took pride of place among the home contingent as they all shot 67s to sit just outside the top 10.
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Senior, a 32-year-old from Morecambe, sits 353rd in the world, having failed to fulfil the potential he showed before turning professional, having beaten both Thomas and Jordan Spieth en route to the US Amateur Championship semi-finals at Erin Hills in 2011.
“Yeah, I mean, that just comes up every time I seem to play well,” said Senior after he’d signed for eight birdies and one bogey, which came at his final hole on the Tom Doak-designed course. “I have done other things in life in the last 10 years since I've been a pro, yeah, but that's a topic that obviously comes up a lot.”
The Englishman won the Scottish Hydro Challenge at Spey Valley in Aviemore in 2015 - the year after he’d landed the Eagle Orchid Scottish Masters at Montrose Links on the PGA EuroPro Tour - before adding another success on the second-tier circuit in Northern Ireland four years later.
In contrast, Spieth and Thomas have both become major winners in the past decade. “It doesn't particularly annoy me because they are world-class players,” added Senior of feeling he is constantly linked with the American duo. “I'm trying to be the best possible golfer I can be every single week and try to learn as much as I can.”
What does he think has been holding him back, having played more on the Challenge Tour over the past few years than the main circuit? “I don't really know,” he said. “If someone could tell me the answer, then I'd be willing to listen.
“I'm just trying to work on my weaknesses as much as I can. I know I've got weaknesses and everyone's got weaknesses you've just got to try and keep working at them as best as you can. I played flawless golf out there today, and didn't really put myself in any trouble. So, when you have a day like that, you are going to shoot a good score.
“I feel like my career has been really, really strange. I'm not going to stand here and say I'm not disappointed with the performances that I've had over the years, but all I can do is keep trying to trend in the right direction and just keep working hard.”
Westwood, the 1998 winner at Loch Lomond, knows this course like the back of his hand, having been a regular visitor when he stayed in Edinburgh for a spell. Bob MacIntyre, who was playing in the same group, said the Englishman had made it “look so simple” as he carded six birdies in a bogey-free effort.
“It was solid,” said Westwood. “I think the longest par putt I holed was two feet, which shows I was never under any stress. I gave myself a lot of birdie chances. I did everything well in fact.
“It always helps if you’ve played a course a lot, especially if conditions change. Today is not typical of golf here. It was pretty much hit it, find it, hit it again – you didn’t have to use your brain too much or get creative. It was a good day for scoring.”
Would he like to see it tougher at some point over the next three days? “No, not really,” he added. “A week like this is probably ideal for going into next week. When you play before a major you don’t want to be battered around too much.
“It can affect you mentally and affect your swing if you’re trying to hit silly shots in 30mph winds. With regard to prepping for the Open, this is perfect.”
Thomas, who also played here in 2019, illuminated his round by holing a 90-footer for an eagle-3 at the seventh, which was sandwiched by four birdies on a blemish-free card. “That was a steal,” he said, smiling. “You obviously never plan on making a 100-footer or whatever it was, but the hole got in the way perfectly.”
In his first outing since landing a major breakthrough in last month’s US Open at Torrey Pines, Rahm was equally satisfied with his day’s work, even though it was more of a mixed bag with seven birdies and two bogeys.
“It can be difficult to follow a tournament after accomplishing something big like I did,” said the Spaniard, who is making his Scottish Open debut. “It's a little bit easier in Arizona when it's warm, the body is warm and, with very low air density, the ball goes very straight and very far.
“But it gets a little tight coming to a course where the wind will move the ball a lot and you know, little mistakes could be magnified quite a bit.
“So I didn't have my best feel out there, but after the first tee shot, which was probably about as bad a tee shot as I can hit, feeling-wise, as well, I just told myself really trust the visualisation process, see the shot, trust the shot and trust that your body can do it, and it really worked out. Sometimes you've just got to get out of your own way.”
Tommy Fleetwood, last year’s runner-up after a play-off, is looking in the mood to be a factor once again after an opening 66, two shots better than MacIntyre, who started birdie-birdie and finished with a chip-in birdie but had a couple of irritating bogeys in between.
“My problem is not being patient. I attack too many pins and then leave myself tricky putts,” said the Scot, who is aiming to take a leaf out of Westwood’s book. “Lee is brilliant,” he said. “He makes the game look so simple. I go for daft pins, he’s never going to go for daft pins. That’s where me and Mike [Thomson, his caddie] have to learn.”