By Martin Blake/Golf Australia Organisation
MATT Jones came to Royal Troon last week with his coach, Gary Barter, by his side and feeling confident.
Golfers can be curious creatures and it is not easy to see why he had a spring in his step. In his previous 11 starts on the US PGA Tour, he had missed seven cuts, although at the most recent, the Bridgestone Invitational, he was a respectable tied-16th.
But his world ranking has dipped 30 spots in the calendar year and the heady days of his hometown win in the Emirates Australian Open last November have long gone.
Yet Jones has convinced himself, and that is enough.
He stepped out at Troon yesterday in benign conditions and opened with a two-under par 69, putting an exclamation mark on his round with a 5-m birdie at the last. On a poor day for the Australians, he was the stand-out performer.
With 11 players in the field it was reasonable to expect one or more Aussie to contend, but it never looked like that.
World No. 1 Jason Day was off his game and had to scramble for a two-over 73; ditto for Marc Leishman, who started with 74. Adam Scott who rallied late for a two-under par 69, was the only other Australian to break par.
They are all chasing the 46-year-old Phil Mickelson, who equalled the Open scoring record as well as the major championship mark with a breath-taking 63, lipping out with a birdie putt at the 18th hole that would have put him alone with 62 in a major.
Mickelson, the 2013 Open champion, leads by three shots.
As for Jones, he had two double-bogeys in his round after beginning with three birdies in the first four holes, and five in a front nine of just 31 shots. But at the par-four 11th he flared his tee shot on to the railway line that runs along the right side, and ended up re-teeing and having to make a long putt for a six. “I made a great double-bogey, actually,” he said.
Then at 12 he drove into deep rough and three-putted for another double that seized all his momentum. Fortunately, the Sydneysider boxed on.
“It’s in my nature to keep fighting,” he said.
“It’s not like I give up easily and to birdie the last is great. It gives me confidence going into tomorrow.”
Jones said he was “ecstatic” with his score in the circumstances. “I played great, I had probably two, maybe three bad swings all day, and that’s going to catch you on these type of golf courses. It’s totally different to playing in the (United) States; if you miss a shot here, you’re going to get punished.”
Day is just not playing at his best, a fact he acknowledged. It was apparent during the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, where he had a chance to win but fell apart in the last last few holes to tie-third, and again yesterday.
There are mental demons in play, he says. At Akron, he fought two-way misses, but yesterday, his irons all went left.
“It’s hard. I mean, it’s hard to win and it’s hard to be on top of your game all the time, and when you don’t have your best stuff, you’ve got to somehow just get it done. Unfortunately I didn’t get it done the right way, what I was expecting, even when I did have my best stuff,” he said.
“I was thinking if I could get in the house at even par or better that would be a great score; unfortunately I didn’t give myself enough chances.”
Day is hopeful the weather will close in today as it is expected to do, because already 10 shots astray of the lead, he needs the field to come back to him. “The next three days are going to be pretty difficult. Hopefully by the end, I’m not too far behind and I can inch my way back into it.”
Scott played nicely throughout, making a birdie with a fine iron shot at the ninth, then picking up further shots at the 16th and 17th. He made just the one bogey, at the 15th.
Of the other Australians, Scott Hend (71), Marcus Fraser (72), Rod Pampling (72), Nathan Holman (72) and Greg Chalmers (72) all have given themselves a chance of making the cut. Leishman, Nick Cullen (74) and Steven Bowditch, who had a nine on the brutal 11th hole in his 79, have some serious work to do.