In-form Aaron Rai on the title trail again on Scottish soil
Aaron Rai will be swapping Wolverhampton for Whitburn if he keeps this up on Scottish soil. A fortnight after winning the Scottish Open, the 25-year-old Englishman is on the title trail again in the home of golf.
He holed his second shot at the opening hole for the first of two eagles in the second round of the Scottish Championship presented by AXA at Fairmont St Andrews to sit just one shot off the lead at the halfway stage.
Another Englishman, Matt Wallace, and Spaniard Adrian Otaegui are out in front on 12-under in the European Tour's first visit to the Fife resort, but an in-form Rai is lurking ominously after impressive opening efforts of 66 and 67.
"It was unexpected," admitted Rai of his flying start to the second circuit, which he followed by chipping in for a 3 at the long sixth. "I was actually trying to play it a couple of yards right and pulled it a little bit, but it was a good shot and you’d take that any day."
His Rolex Series win in East Lothian came on the back of a second-place finish in the Irish Open. A missed cut in last week's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth appears to have just been a blip.
"It’s natural to feel confident on the back end of how things have gone over the last few weeks but still not to a point where I take for granted what’s happening, so I’m trying to strike that balance of how to approach things," said the quietly-spoken Rai.
"I’m trying to focus on myself as much as possible and just to continue to do exactly what I’ve been doing over the last few months. If I do that, I’ll give myself chances to keep getting better and keep progressing.
"I asked Lee Westwood yesterday what keeps him motivated and his simple answer was he loves the game. It’s so refreshing to hear that from someone of his stature and his point of view in his career right now and I hope to do the same as much as possible."
Wallace, the world No 51 and second highest-ranked player in the field, dropped just one shot in his opening 36 holes in the company of European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington, who is handily-placed on nine-under.
"It’s good that I’ve done that in front of him," admitted Wallace, who is determined to get on the Irishman's team for next year's rescheduled match at Whistling Straits and make up for the disappointment of missing out on one of Thomas Bjorn's picks for the 2018 clash in Paris.
"I’m going to try and do it where I don’t need a pick this time, so this is a nice start," added the 30-year-old of polished opening rounds of 65 and 67.
Otaegui, who started the day with a three-shot lead after his spectacular 10-under 62 on Thursday, was one-over at the turn before coming home in three-under for a 70. After landing two match-play victories on the European Tour, he's happy to be in the hunt for a stroke-play title.
"I’m feeling good, I’m feeling happy about the round," said the 27-year San Sebastian man. "I had to work hard at the beginning to save some pars. but then I played much better on the back nine, so it’s been okay, it’s been a good day."
With a brace of 67s, Frenchman Adrien Saddier sits fourth on 10-under, one better than Harrington and English duo Paul Waring and Garrick Porteous, with their compatriot, Westwood, two shots further back after a second double-bogey in two days left him having to settle for a 70.
Harrington described his three-under effort as a "nice" return and the 48-year-old is hoping to kick on over the weekend as he bids to land a first victory since the 2016 Portugal Masters.
"I want to be competitive at the top level," he declared. "I’ve been obsessed with trying to keep up with these young guys. My whole career I’ve been one level down from the longest hitters, and I’m still there now.
"But I’m hitting it straight – and a decent distance. Yesterday I gained 2.9 shots off the tee, which is unheard of for me. Driving it well and putting it well is a good combination."
Marc Warren, who finished fourth behind Rai at The Renaissance Club, is the leading Scot on eight-under, having signed off with three birdies as he added a 69 to an opening 67 to sit in a tie for eighth
"It wasn’t my best stuff out there," admitted the Austrian Open champion. "I was struggling with my ball-striking a little, hanging in there most of the day, but never really in much trouble.
"If it’s going to be calm over the weekend, I think 20-under is a winning score. Someone will get there, the greens are so good and the course is good. There should be a lot of birdies over the weekend, so it’ll be exciting."
Maintaining his recent encouraging form on the main tour, Craig Howie carded seven birdies in a 68 as he moved into a tie for 18th on six-under, one ahead of Ewen Ferguson (72).
With a 67 that contained six birdies, David Law jumped 35 spots into a share of 30th position on four-under alongside Connor Syme (70) and David Drysdale (71).
Richie Ramsay (68), Calum Hill (72) and Scott Jamieson (75) all progressed on two-under, with Daniel Young making it a total of 10 home players still standing as he came home in 32 for a 71 to squeeze through on one-under.
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