Stephen Gallacher unfazed by Ryder Cup rivals’ rise

Lothians star Stephen Gallacher shot a 70 in his first round at Valhalla. Photograph: Getty Images
Lothians star Stephen Gallacher shot a 70 in his first round at Valhalla. Photograph: Getty Images
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LOTHIANS star Stephen Gallacher wasn’t worried that it was a good day for his Ryder Cup rivals in the opening round of the 96th PGA Championship.

Lee Westwood, one of the players Gallacher is trying to stay ahead of in the qualification race, grabbed a share of the lead with a six-under-par 65 at Valhalla.

Two others just behind the Scot in the standings – Ian Poulter and Joost Luiten – also ended the first round in prominent positions after matching 68s.

But all that mattered to Gallacher was that he got off to a solid start himself in the season’s final major, breaking par with his 70 to sit joint-36th alongside compatriot Colin Montgomerie.

“Lee’s six under is a phenomenal score round here,” admitted the Bathgate man of an effort that was later matched by American duo Ryan Palmer and Kevin Chappell.

“But I can’t do anything about that – I can only worry about my score and, when you go under par in the first round of a major, especially over here, then you are never going to be too far away.

“I was solid today and I drove the ball very well, so let’s hope it continues.”

Gallacher is 11th in the Ryder Cup standings and needs to climb two spots between now and the end of the month to secure an automatic berth in Paul McGinley’s team.

Along with the rest of the players in contention, he headed out in Louisville after receiving a pep talk from the European captain and came flying out of the blocks.

His approach to the first ended around two feet from the pin for an opening birdie and then went to two-under after picking up another shot at the fourth.

He bogeyed the fifth, birdied the 13th but then gave that shot back two holes later to sit five shots off the three joint-leaders.

“I played well today and hit a lot of nice putts that didn’t quite go in so it could have been even better, which is encouraging,” added Gallacher.

“I hit it just in the first cut about three times and it just causes you enough trouble to stop you being able to go at flags.

“The pins were tough but the greens are pretty soft so if you can get the distance you can fly at them.”

Westwood, who is bidding to secure a ninth Ryder Cup appearance, carded nine birdies as he took up from where he’d left off with a 63 on the Sunday in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron.

“I’m there or thereabouts,” said the Englishman of his Ryder Cup situation. “I wouldn’t be a million miles away with a good week this week.

“I’m still trying to qualify for the team to free up a pick for Paul.

“I don’t want to rely on a pick. There’s a bit more pressure when you’re a selection as you’ve almost got to justify your pick.”

Among the players breathing down the necks of the leaders are Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Jim Furyk after they all fired 66s.

New world No 1 McIlroy undid some good early work by hitting it out of bounds at the tenth as he dropped three shots in two holes.

But, after back-to-back wins, he’s brimming with confidence and duly bounced back with four birdies on the spin. “I double-crossed it,” he said of his rare poor shot of late at the tenth.

“I was trying to hit it up the left side with a cut and just double crossed it. It is one of those things that just takes you by surprise, because in a way I haven’t hit a shot like that for a while.

“It sort of knocked me off track a little bit, but I came back really well with those birdies on the back nine, which sort of shows mentally where I’m at with my game.”

It was a great day for Europe’s Ryder Cup captain but a disappointing one for his American counterpart.

Tom Watson saw Matt Kuchar, the world No 6, wiithdraw before the off due to back spasms then Jason Dufner, the defending champion here, only lasted ten holes before calling it a day with his neck injury.

On top of that, Tiger Woods was out of sorts as he carded a 74 to sit in a tie for 109th.

“It wasn’t very good,” admitted Woods, who refused to blame the back injury that had severely disrupted his preparations at the venue where he won the same event in 2000.

“I hit a lot of bad shots and I never got a putt to the hole – that’s not a good combo.”