Liam Johnston ready to enjoy his ‘free hit’ at Dunhill Links

Liam Johnston has had an impressive season
Liam Johnston has had an impressive season
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Twelve months after making his professional debut in the Dunhill Links Championship, Liam Johnston returns to the same stage as Scotland’s most successful golfer this season.

The 25-year-old, who made the cut in that first test in the paid ranks, has won three times this year, twice on the Challenge Tour and once on the ProGolf Tour.

With earnings of close to £100,000 on the Challenge Tour, he’s already all but wrapped up a European Tour card for next season and this week’s appearance in the £3.85 million pro-am is essentially a free roll of the dice.

“It’s been all right, yeah,” Johnston, smiling, told the Edinburgh Evening News as he looked back on what he’s achieved since carding scores of 72-70-70-68 to finish joint-47th behind Tyrrell Hatton as the Englishman made it back-to-back wins in the tournament.

“I was actually just thinking that this event 12 months ago was my first one as a pro and to think what I’ve achieved from then to now has been pretty pleasing.

“Mathematically, it looks as though I’ve got my card for the European Tour next season and it’s quite surreal, to be honest.

“Making the cut in this event last year was huge. It kind of lets you know that you can perform on these big stages.

“All week I didn’t really feel fazeds by the situation. I felt comfortable on courses I was already familiar with.

“It was great to get that opportunity and I am still very grateful for that. It definitely helped pave my way into the pro ranks a lot easier.”

Shortly after making that promising start – he finished four shots ahead of Rory McIlroy and also outscored Matt Wallace – Johnston won the ProGolf Tour Qualifying School in Germany.

He then recorded an early-season success on the third-tier circuit before making the most of a Challenge Tour invitation to add the Andalucia-Costa Del Sol Match Play 9.

Johnston then had a bit of a quiet spell before rerturning to form with a vengeance to win the Kazakhstan Open, one of the majors on the Challenge Tour, last month.

Sitting fifth in the Road to Ras Al Khaimah Rankings and needing to stay in the top 15, he’s on course to graduate to the main Tour along with David Law (ninth) and Grant Forrest (13th).

“Going on previous years and what other people have told me, it’s usually about 100,000 points that virtually guarantees a top-15 on the money list and maybe even less than that,” said the 2017 Scottish Stroke Play champion.

“Where I am in the Challenge Tour rankings has given me the opportunity to pick and chose where I am going to be playing at the moment. Before winning in Kazakhstan, I had been playing to play in France the week after and also Ireland this week. But that victory gave me the chance to have a week off and regroup and, of course, come here instead.

“Obviously after this week when I get back on the Challenge Tour I will be trying to put up as many points on the board as I possibly can, but I think it’s going to be good enough.

“This week is a bit of a free shot for me. I know the courses pretty well from my amateur days and also last year so I’m looking forward to it. It should be good fun.”

Joining Johnston in securing invites at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews this time around are Sam Locke and Connor Syme. Locke has earned his opportunity after turning pro straight after winning the Silver Medal in The Open at Carnoustie in July while Syme has been rewarded for a strongdisplay in the event early on his career in the paid ranks 12 months ago.

Other home players in the field include Stephen Gallacher, David Drysdale and Richie Ramsay, who is looking for a big week to get inside the top 110 in the Race to Dubai.