The 119th Amateur Championship between Blairgowrie’s Bradley Neil and Zander Lombard of South Africa is classic match play at its best. It’s all-square after the morning round, with the prospect of an intriguing afternoon’s play over the glorious sun-bathed links of Royal Portrush.
Lombard has been the steadier of the two players but Neil’s gritty short game has got him out of trouble time and again over the first 18 holes.
The dye was cast early on when Neil missed the par-3, 3rd hole. He pulled his tee shot slightly and watched as it rolled down a bank behind the green. With Lombard lying just 18 feet away for birdie, Neil looked like going one down. He played a beautiful flop shot to six inches, however, to save par. Lombard then missed his birdie putt.
Neil hit a poor drive on the next hole into long grass near the out of bounds line. He had to take a penalty drop and lost the hole to Lombard’s regulation par. Lombard three putted the next to take the match back to all square.
From then on Lombard looked the steadier player, hitting greens and giving himself chances for birdies while Neil struggled to find the putting surfaces. The 18-year-old Scot’s brilliant short game saved him on several occasions.
Lombard went one up at the seventh hole when he holed a 30-birdie putt and could have built on that advantage if he had taken his chances.
The par-4, 8th hole showed how quickly fortunes can turn in match play golf. Neil hit a wide tee shot into deep rough right of the fairway and had to hack the ball back into play. Lombard hit a sand wedge to 18 feet but missed the birdie putt. Neil hit his third to five feet and holed out for par and a half.
Lombard remained one hole up until the 12th when he missed his first green of the day and failed to get up and down to take the match back to all square.
Neil went ahead at the 16th when Lombard bunkered his tee shot and couldn’t advance the ball to the green. He needed three more shots to get the ball in the hole. Even a par wouldn’t have saved him though, as Neil holed his 10-foot birdie putt.
The match went back all square on the par-5, 17th when Neil recorded a bogey after finding the left rough off the tee. All he could do was advance the ball down the fairway. He then missed the green with his third shot from 160 yards and missed with his fourth when his ball ended up in greenside bunker.
That left the match all square heading into the afternoon round after both players recorded level par rounds of 70, with Lombard playing the steadier golf. The South African hit 16 of 18 greens in the morning round and had at least six birdie putts he failed to convert. He also hit eight of 14 fairways.
Neil only managed to find eight greens in regulation and has hit seven of 14 fairways but his short game is keeping him hard on Lombard’s heels.