IN the Auld Grey Toon, it was the auldest swinger in toon who made quite the impression. On a dour, damp, blustery day that made scoring as tricky a task as registering for Scotland’s Covid vaccine App, Richard Bland illuminated the third round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship with a sparkling eight-under 64 over the hallowed Old Course.

At 48, Bland is not quite Royal & Ancient but the energised English veteran rolled back the years with a display of poise and polish that hoisted him on to an 11-under aggregate and left him three shots behind the leader, Danny Willett, heading into today’s closing round.

As he inches towards his half century, Bland continues to enjoy the fruits of his golfing labours and longevity. Earlier this season, at the British Masters, he won his first European Tour title in his 478th event on the circuit. Yesterday’s rousing round over this storied expanse was something of a breakthrough too.

“The Old Course is somewhere I've struggled to get my head round down the years but this is by far the lowest score I’ve ever shot here,” he said after finally getting to grips with its abundant challenges in some of the worst conditions.

So, has he finally fallen in love with the Old Course? “I prefer Carnoustie,” Bland added with a declaration that will probably have the locals demanding he be tried for heresy on the Bruce Embankment. “I am much more of a visual player who likes to see what's in front of me and St Andrews doesn’t give you that.”

Bland certainly got in his eye in early on yesterday, though, and birdied the first three holes in a sprightly opening. It got better on the fifth where he trundled in a raking putt of some 40-feet for an eagle. A further trio of birdies had him flying high and, despite leaking his only shot of the day on the 16th, Bland finished with a flourish and knocked his approach to the last into a few feet for a closing birdie.

It had been a spirited, gritted-teeth assault. “I knew I would have to grind for it after the turn and I played the really tough holes, at 14, 15 and 16, when the weather was at its worst,” he said. “You were hitting woods into those holes. It was crazy. You're normally hitting eight or nine irons. I just putted really well and holed just about everything. It was one of those days when I had the pace and they went in.”

After waiting an eternity to claim his maiden tour triumph back in May, Bland continues to ride the wave of confidence that the success created.

“It reinforces that belief you have in yourself that you can get across the line when you need to,” he added. “My game has stayed at a pretty good level since then.”

Bland will need to maintain that level of performance to reel in Willett. The 2016 Masters champion pieced together a tidy, bogey-free 66 over the Old Course as he assumed command of affairs. Willett has posted just one top-10 finish this year but the Yorkshireman is now on course to land one of the European Tour’s biggest cheques.

As well as Bland, the posse in second place includes the double Dunhill Links champion, Tyrrell Hatton, his Ryder Cup team-mate, Shane Lowry, and Irish rookie John Murphy, who was a winner on the Old Course as an amateur in the 2018 St Andrews Links Trophy.

Hatton had birdied four holes in a row from the second as he came out with guns blazing but three bogeys on the bounce on the exacting back nine halted his menacing advances. Lowry was five-under through eight and then held it together on the inward half as his 67 kept him right in the thick of it. “There’s a bit of fatigue,” he said of the post Ryder Cup come down. “But I’m still trying to give it my all.”

On the Scottish front, meanwhile, Ewen Ferguson’s impressive week continued as he cemented his place in the top-10 on nine-under with a 69 at Kingsbarns.

The 25-year-old Challenge Tour campaigner will move up to the main European circuit next season and the Bearsden man is revelling in this opportunity to test himself against some of the best on the tour.

“There are so many good players here and it’s good to learn from them with a view to next year,” he said.