Nick Dougherty has re-ignited his challenge to be part of Nick Faldo’s Ryder Cup team next month.
Ever since his mother died after a heart attack in April, the 26-year-old from Liverpool has understandably struggled for focus, not even managing a top-50 finish in his last seven starts.
However, an opening four-under-par 66 at the SAS Masters in Stockholm – the event in which he was joint runner-up last year – has enabled Dougherty to see light at the end of the tunnel.
“It keeps the dream alive,” he said after taking a share of the lead with Swede Peter Hanson and Spaniard Pedro Linhart in a round where the highlight was a 142-yard wedge on the downwind 12th which flew straight into the cup for an eagle two.
Dougherty led the points table on winning the Dunhill Links title at St Andrews last October, but is down to 15th with this event and only two more counting tournaments to come.
To Dougherty’s great surprise, ninth-placed Oliver Wilson and 10th-placed Soren Hansen are taking this week off after missing the cut, like him, in last week’s US PGA and so Faldo’s prodigy can move right onto their heels by winning on Sunday.
“I’ve not played a good round in what feels like forever, but I played some really really great golf there,” he added, having begun with a 30-foot par saving putt and having kept a bogey off his card in the strong wind and showers.
“A few weeks ago my mind was somewhere else and it was driving me insane, but you’ve got to turn the corner somewhere, so hopefully this is where it starts.
“It should have been a fantastic year, but it’s turned into a horrid one on and off the course for me and my family.
“It would have been the easiest thing to say I’m not going to bother, but my mum wanted me to do everything I could to make the Ryder Cup.
“If I don’t, I won’t feel disappointed with myself. I’ve done what I can and playing badly after what’s happened is fully acceptable.”
Dougherty considers himself way down the list of possible wild cards – Faldo has two to hand out on August 31 – and sees the final countdown in simple terms.
“I’ve just got to play great,” he commented.
Hanson, trying to be the first home winner of the title since Jesper Parnevik a decade ago, covered the front nine in a four-under 30 to catch Dougherty.
Linhart, 219th on the Order of Merit and 1,276th in the world, then made it a three-way tie with two closing birdies on the front nine.
German Martin Kaymer, 11th in the Ryder Cup race and with a chance to leap to eighth, had a one-under 69, as did Paul McGinley, who resigned as a vice-captain to Faldo hoping to make the team, but is down in 28th spot in the standings.
American DJ Trahan, among the leading candidates for one of Paul Azinger’s four wild cards, managed only a three-over 73 after accepting an invitation to play.
“It would normally upset me more, but my head was not in it – it felt like jetlag,” he said. “I played very poorly, but I still feel good about tomorrow.”
The professional debut of Bristol 20-year-old Chris Wood, a superb fifth at The Open last month, brought a level-par 70.
The group only one behind Dougherty, Hanson and Linhart includes four of the European Tour’s most experienced members – Scotland’s Gary Orr, English pair Paul Broadhurst and Peter Baker and Australian Peter Fowler, who at 49 is trying to become the circuit’s oldest-ever winner.