The Adam Scott versus Jordan Spieth shoot-out that the Emirates Australian Open organisers probably crave is still a possibility.
But for now, it is New South Welshman James Nitties who leads the Open at Royal Sydney after a dazzling 65 in relatively still conditions today.
Nitties (9-under par) leads by a shot from New Zealander Ryan Fox and a further shot to another New South Welshman, US-based Australian Rhein Gibson. World No. 7 Scott, who also shot 65, is just three shots from the lead going into the weekend, and Spieth a further shot away.
Playing the back nine first in the afternoon, Nitties gave no indication of what was to come, even par for his first 10 holes, but he exploded with a front nine of 29 shots, including an eagle at the second when he hit a four iron inside a metre at the par-five, and three consecutive birdies to finish his round. On the last, he hit a sand wedge to just inside three metres and rattled home the birdie putt.
It has been quite some time since the 34-year-old, who has spent the past five years on the web.com Tour in the United States, has contended in a big tournament.
In fact, he has lost his playing status on the secondary American Tour and spent most of 2016 knocking it around on mini-tours and Monday qualifiers, “staying in hotels with cockroaches running around them”. Coming home to Newcastle, he even played in some pro-ams to quench his thirst for competition.
It is a long way from pro-ams to leader of the Australian Open but Nitties loves playing golf; did not think of walking away. “A lot of people work really hard in middle class jobs and they have to work 60 hours a week,” he said. “If I can work really hard for four hours and get something out of it, it really changes perspective.”
Moving day came a day early at Royal Sydney with light winds making the scoring easy. By the time the joint-first round leaders Curtis Luck and Lucas Herbert hit-off in the afternoon, they had been overtaken.
Scott was one of the first to move, although he took some time to find his mojo, going through the back nine without picking up a shot but then getting around the front side in 30. He birdied the short first from close range, had another birdie at the par-five second and again at the par-three sixth where he made a long putt, which kept the momentum.
At the reachable par-five seventh, he made his big move, hitting a four-iron to short-range, calling it “my best shot of the day”, and rolling in the eagle putt from just inside two metres. The Australian could easily have signed for 64; at the ninth, his last hole, he hit a wedge to just more than a metre but tugged the putt left and had to be content with par.
“I hit a lot of good shots,” he said. “I played a solid last nine holes. Unfortunately, it took me 27 to get that kind of good golf out of me, so hopefully there’s 36 good holes coming up.”
Fox, the New Zealander who is the son of All Black legend Grant Fox, is closest to Nitties after a 68 today that puts him in tomorrow’s final group. Like Nitties he has never won a tournament on this level, but he has qualified to play on the European Tour next year and he has loads of game.
No New Zealander has won the Australian Open, a fact that brought a smile to his face last night. “I guess you guys are our biggest rivals in pretty much everything sport and it would certainly be nice to have a Kiwi name on the Stonehaven Cup,” he said.
Amateur Curtis Luck birdied the final hole for a 71 that keeps him in the mix at six-under, brushing off a moment on the seventh hole when his tee shot flared right and stayed up a tree. Unable to find or identify the ball despite the fact spectators saw it fly into the branches, he had to return to the tee to reload.
Luck is not the only amateur on the first page, with another Perth player, Min Woo Lee, carding a 67 to underline his talent and sit within the top 10.