Rickie Fowler skipped the defense of his Scottish Open title last year with a heavy heart. He began making up for lost time on Thursday.
The American picked up where he left off in 2015 at the warmup event for the British Open, avoiding trouble and rolling in five birdies at Dundonald Links to shoot a 5-under 67 in the first round. He was in a six-way tie for second place, two shots behind Mikko Ilonen.
Fowler, who won the Scottish Open when it was held at Gullane, missed the 2016 tournament because of scheduling conflicts arising from the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which clogged up the golfing calendar last summer.
“I would have loved to have been here,” he said. “Coming off winning the year before, I love playing links golf and I love playing the week before a major. It was tough to miss it.
“I’m just glad to be back.” The highlight of a stress-free and well-managed round, when he only ran out of position once, was a left-to-right birdie putt at No. 4 that curled into the cup from 20 feet. That came in the midst of three straight birdies on his back nine as Fowler outplayed his partners Rory McIlroy (74) and Henrik Stenson (72) in the marquee group, continuing his consistent form this year.
Fowler has contended at both majors so far and has seven top-10 finishes this season. Ilonen, the world No. 335 from Finland who arrived in Scotland on the back of four straight missed cuts, said he only made one bad swing in what he described as his best round of the season. He thinned his tee shot right at No. 8 his second-to-last hole using a rescue club, only to pull off a superb approach from the thick rough and salvage a par from 10 feet.
He had seven birdies in all five of them coming in six holes from Nos. 1-6 and was delighted that a decision to use a new set of irons this week paid off.
Ilonen is a five-time winner on the European Tour and has links pedigree, having won the British Amateur in 2000. His highest finish in 2017, however, was tied for 32nd in Dubai.
“I haven’t been able to put two rounds together, never mind four,” said Ilonen, who wasn’t getting carried away. Ilonen, an afternoon starter, was giving his post-round interviews just as rain began to fall for the first time in an opening round that featured a sometimes-fierce breeze off the Ayrshire coast in western Scotland.
Padraig Harrington battled through the rain to roll in a 25-yard par putt from off the 16th green and chip in from the back of No. 17 to complete a 67, joining Fowler, Ian Poulter, Paul Peterson, Callum Shinkwin and Andrew Dodt.
Harrington called his par at No. 16 a “minor miracle,” having thought he’d lost his ball off the tee. It was found by a scorer in an unplayable lie, so Harrington took a penalty drop, hacked out and made the putt.
“Seven would have been a good score there,” said Harrington, who won the British Open in 2008 on the last occasion it was held at Royal Birkdale the venue for the major next week.
Reigning Open champion Stenson rebounded from a triple-bogey 7 on his first hole (No. 10) after driving left into thick rough and needing three hacks to get the ball out to shoot level par. He cut a frustrated figure on his back nine, chucking his club high into the air on his last hole after a weak approach.
Wedge play was McIlroy’s undoing, too, on a day the out-of-form world No. 4 failed to shoot the consistent round he has seeking ahead of the Open. On his third and fourth holes, he was in the middle of the fairway and less than 100 yards out, yet fell short and right with his approaches the latter into a burn to necessitate a drop for a double-bogey.
From 4 over after four holes, McIlroy recovered to 1 over after 16, with three of his four birdies coming via tap-ins on par fives. McIlroy has missed the cut in two of his last three events, the U.S. Open and the Irish Open.