Padraig Harrington feels so much in his element when the only sound he can hear over the wailing of the wind is the moaning of his rivals that he could win the fourth major of his career next week.
Even with two Claret Jugs on the mantelpiece, he’ll be an underdog at Royal Troon. But the 44-year old needs to feel the heat of competition coming into a major and after withstanding tough, windy conditions at Castle Stuart to open the Aberdeen Asset Management with a two under 70, he’s just a shot off the lead and licking his chops.
What’s crucial for Harrington is not that he’s putting better (he is) or striking the ball well (he’s doing that too) but that he is mentally getting himself in the right frame of mind to mount a realistic challenge at Royal Troon.
Quite apart from his putting and his chipping, which has held him back in recent years, it’s the lack of that bullet-proof mental armour that’s left him defenceless at the biggest tests.
But when the wind blows and the field is crying out for mercy, Harrington grows an inch or two taller and the focus required to avoid disaster keeps him so busy mentally that the problems that use dog him appear to fade away.
“I played nicely,” Harrington said after carding one of just 20 sub-par rounds, ending the day tied for third with seven other players including Graeme McDowell, another natural born links killer.
"I wish I played every tournament round of golf in these sort of conditions. It was tough. It required your attention out there. But it seemed very playable in the sense of the golf course is designed to play in -- there's openings in the front of every green. There wasn’t any hidden pin positions. So yeah, it was all there in front of you, and certainly I would enjoy that challenge every day of my tournament life.”
Australia’s Scott Hend and Chile's Felipe Aguilar shot three under 69s to top the field by one from Harrington, McDowell, Tyrrell Hatton, Alex Noren, Andy Sullivan, Richard Bland, Eddie Pepperell and YE Yang.
It was the perfect warm up round for next week’s Open Championship and Harrington, while admitting he was “exhausted” afterwards, is slowly find form having signed off with a 67 in the Open de France last Sunday.
“It’s the sort of test you want going into the Open,” he said. “I think this gave us a big test there today. I expected some tee boxes moved up 17, 18 maybe, and 13, but I was delighted that they didn't.
“They won’t move them up next week, that's for sure."
He added: “Four days of this would be tough but yeah, I’d love to play golf like this every day of my life.”
Harrington spotted a flaw in his putting last week and feels good about it with the Open, the US PGA and the Olympics all on the immediate horizon.
"I'm actually playing very well. In my physical game, I've certainly turned a corner. My putting, I've turned the corner. Mentally, I still have some demons up there, but I would go out there and do okay in those sort of conditions. Those are my conditions. If I had to play golf in that every day, it would be -- against the field, it would be a lot easier for me.
"I'm really playing as good of golf physically as I've ever played. But mentally, I’m certainly not as good as I would have been but we’re working on it."
McDowell has had what looks like a average to poor year on paper but like Harrington, he’s playing better than his results suggest.
On a day when Shane Lowry, still struggling to shrug off the US Open, had 34 putts in 77 that left him tied with Paul McGinley — he fought back from three over to one over with five to go but doubled the 15th and then bogeyed the last two — McDowell used his natural links game to feel his way to a 70.
“I think the two days at Troon were a big help coming into this week,” said McDowell, who used his missed cut in France to practice there for two days last weekend.
"The wind really blew hard Saturday and Sunday when I was there. Hit a lot of shots controlling my ball flight across the winds and into the wind. Put a 2-hybrid in especially for these weeks and I got a good workout with it at Troon, and it's a very important club for me in these conditions.
"A good couple days at Troon really prepared me well and nice to get a couple under and get off to a good start. If it continues to blow like this, this is going to be a grind this weekend. You need to hang in and stay in touch.”
McDowell can’t afford the luxury of getting ahead of himself and start thinking about the Ryder Cup team.
If he plays well, he’ll either make the team on merit or force a pick but either way he’s concentrating on turning good vibes into scores.
“it’s been a funny year for me,” he said. "It's looked volatile from a results point of view but within me I feel like I've played better than that. Just trying to stay relaxed and enjoy it.”
For Lowry, he might not have been expecting such a gruelling test after pointing out in his newspaper column that "in the week before the British Open what you don’t want is a course that beats you up physically and mentally.
"Castle Stuart Golf Links just outside Inverness is a friendly, wide open course which I feel is ideal preparation for next week’s Open championship at Royal Troon. There’s nothing too stressful, and scoring is normally quite good, which makes it a great warm-up tournament with an eye on the Open."
Michael Hoey is tied 56th after a 74 but Paul Dunne struggled to a 78 and at 114th in the Race to Dubai, he may now need a big week at The Open to take some pressure of his shoulders.
With the top 115 in the Race to Dubai keeping their cards, he knows that starts will be harder to come by and money hard to win as the season enters that crucial second half.
Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, Castle Stuart (Par 72)
69 S Hend (Aus) F Aguilar (Chi)
70 T Hatton (Eng) G McDowell (Nir) A Noren (Swe) A Sullivan (Eng) R Bland (Eng) P Harrington (Irl) E Pepperell (Eng) Y Yang (Kor)
71 B Dredge (Wal) M Ilonen (Fin) D Lee (Nzl) C Lee (Sco) A Levy (Fra) R Cabrera Bello (Esp) M Manassero (Ita) R Sterne (RSA) L Donald (Eng) B Grace (RSA)
72 R Ramsay (Sco) M Kaymer (Ger) N Fasth (Swe) J Lagergren (Swe) R Rock (Eng) J Doherty (Sco) E Molinari (Ita) J Singh (Ind) J Campillo (Esp) J Walters (RSA) N Elvira (Esp) R Paratore (Ita) A Dodt (Aus) R Kakko (Fin) R Gouveia (Por) W Ashun (Chn) R Knox (Sco) D Drysdale (Sco) D Howell (Eng) N Bertasio (Ita) M Carlsson (Swe)
73 J Quesne (Fra) M Southgate (Eng) C Paisley (Eng) T Pieters (Bel) M Fitzpatrick (Eng) M Warren (Sco) T Bjørn (Den) R Wattel (Fra) J Hansen (Den) S Khan (Eng) P Larrazábal (Esp) R Jacquelin (Fra) G Havret (Fra) R Evans (Eng)
74 A Cañizares (Esp) S Lee (Kor) S Webster (Eng) G Bourdy (Fra) T Fleetwood (Eng) S Stricker (USA) M Ford (Eng) D Im (USA) G Wright (Wal) S Kjeldsen (Den) M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra) C Shinkwin (Eng) J McLeary (Sco) D Lipsky (USA) M Hoey (Nir) L Slattery (Eng) P Meesawat (Tha) H Porteous (RSA) M Korhonen (Fin) N Colsaerts (Bel)
75 B Hebert (Fra) M Kieffer (Ger) O Fisher (Eng) J Carlsson (Swe) B Evans (Eng) G Storm (Eng) A Wall (Eng) C Hanson (Eng) P Reed (USA) A Otaegui (Esp) S Manley (Wal) O Wilson (Eng) S Gros (Fra)
76 R McEvoy (Eng) T Linard (Fra) P Whiteford (Sco) K Aphibarnrat (Tha) S Jamieson (Sco) J Luiten (Ned) L Bjerregaard (Den) J Morrison (Eng) R Fisher (Eng) M Madsen (Den) L Jensen (Den) H Stenson (Swe) P Mickelson (USA) A Johnston (Eng)
77 F Zanotti (Par) D Horsey (Eng) J Edfors (Swe) L Haotong (Chn) P McGinley (Irl) B Åkesson (Swe) S Lowry (Irl) T Jaidee (Tha) G Boyd (Eng) J Gunn (Sco)
78 M Jiménez (Esp) J Fahrbring (Swe) J Parry (Eng) T Olesen (Den) R Green (Aus) J Wang (Kor) S Lyle (Sco) C Montgomerie (Sco) D Brooks (Eng) S Kapur (Ind) N Holman (Aus) R Davies (Wal) S Chawrasia (Ind) P Dunne (Irl) A Venter (am) (RSA)
79 R Dinwiddie (Eng) P Hanson (Swe) K Nicol (Sco) R McGowan (Eng) D Dixon (Eng) G Coetzee (RSA) C Berardo (Fra)
80 S Dyson (Eng) T Fisher Jnr (RSA) M Siem (Ger) B Virto (Esp) P Edberg (Swe) D Fichardt (RSA) J Donaldson (Wal) A McArthur (Sco) J Holmes (USA) M Baldwin (Eng) J Scrivener (Aus)
81 P Lawrie (Sco) G Stal (Fra) E De La Riva (Esp) J Winther (Den)
82 J Lovemark (USA) D Lingmerth (Swe)
83 A Forsyth (Sco) B Rumford (Aus)
84 R Karlsson (Swe)
88 J Jeong (Kor)
** E España (Fra)