FOR a young man who’s never been in a golfing media centre in his life, 24-year-old Stephen Dartnall is taking it all in his stride. So, too, on the course where in the 2008 Australian Open championship at Royal Sydney he has shown rare poise to leave the big names in his wake.
And "wake" was the operative word at RS yesterday as rain tumbled down until finally the well-drained course could take no more. Play was suspended about 3pm because of flooded greens and then finally abandoned for the day at 4.45pm. With 78 players still on the course, three of them who have completed just one hole, play will resume at 6.30am today. It is hoped to start the third round by 11.45am after the cut is made.
That cut seem likely to be at one over par, which will cut a swath through some of the big names. Defending champion Craig Parry, Stuart Appleby, the resurgent Peter Senior, Nathan Green and Stephen Leaney are all two over while John Daly is five over.
By the time play was abandoned, Dartnall was back in his rented digs, warm and dry, reflecting on what has been already – with his rounds of 65-68 for an 11-under-par 36-hole total – and what lies ahead at the weekend. He’s prepared for this moment since he was a kid, and now it is upon him.
The young West Australian has a two-shot lead from Tasmanian Mathew Goggin, runner-up to Geoff Ogilvy in the Australian PGA at Coolum last Sunday, with Sydney’s Ewan Porter a further stroke back. And the calls started coming through to his mobile again just like the night before after introducing himself to Australian professional golf during the afternoon.
Former tour player Lyndsay Stephen, in his commentator’s role with tournament telecaster Channel Seven, was basking in the reflected glory as his coach of about six years.
"He had a slow start to his career, working on his swing, technique and set-up, and he is just starting to get an insight into what the pressure of golf is all about," he said. "He’s started to really blossom. He has a fantastic attitude and controls his emotions really well."
Through 36 holes, Dartnall has accumulated one eagle, 12 birdies, and just three bogeys. He had missed just five greens in regulation in two days. Throw in his pre-qualifying 10-under 62 at New Brighton on Monday and he is 21-under par for three rounds of golf. Even Tiger Woods would think that acceptable.
Can he prevent the demons of the mind, given his lofty position? "You have to put it all in perspective and think you are just out here like you trained to do," he said. "That’s what I’m trying to do."
For a three-week period in 2006, Dartnall was ranked No.1 amateur in the world by the Royal & Ancient. Golf Australia recognised his talent by arranging a practice round with Geoff Ogilvy and Adam Scott leading into the open at RS two years ago. And then Dartnall made the cut in the tournament proper.
Of what lies ahead, he said: "I feel I have been playing well, but I suppose the good thing is that I have not got everything out of the two rounds. There is still room for improvement."
Goggin reckons there is, too, saying: "It was a bit of a struggle. I didn’t hit the ball well, I didn’t feel very comfortable. I feel fortunate to have eked out a 70 the way I played and [that] I’m not too far behind going into the weekend."
But, no way was he going to the practice range yesterday afternoon to sort out his problems. And not because of Huey’s eventual success in drowning the course.
"You get a good feel [on the range] and then you go to dinner," he said. "What’s the point of that? Golfers are the only competitive sportsmen who practise after competition. I think we have it the wrong way round. Come earlier the next day and get a good feel and walk to the first tee.
"Three or four years ago, I wouldn’t have shot 70. No way. I probably would have been frustrated and made a few bogeys and fallen back on the leaderboard," he added, referring to his vastly improved temperament.
Porter was the exact opposite to Goggin. On his own admission, he came to RS after a horrible year on the Nationwide Tour. He won the co-sanctioned Moonah Classic in Melbourne in early March and then played a further 22 events for earnings of just over $US10,000 ($15,090).
"I’ve been playing dreadfully," Porter said. "To be honest, my thoughts for this week were just to play four rounds."
His support team of locals from Cronulla, including former Test opener Phil Jaques, has picked up his spirits. "But I can’t wait for this tournament to end so I can have a month’s holiday. I don’t know where I’ll go but I’m looking forward to putting the clubs in the garage, locking them up and throwing away the key for a month."
He might feel a little differently come tomorrow afternoon if he stands on the podium.