Tiley takes step up to lead English challenge

One estimation of the sponsorship tsunami that would be unleashed should superstar-in-waiting Rory McIlroy win the Open Championship on Sunday stretched into eight figures. Back in the economically challenged world of the self-confessed journeyman professional, making the cut today could trigger a first-ever sponsor's bonus for Steven Tiley.

The 27-year-old from Kent is in line for a £2,000 payout from the Sports Investment Fund if he reaches the last two rounds. The modest bonus will be welcome but it could be dwarfed by what Tiley could earn in prize money if he continues the form that brought him a 66 on the Old Course yesterday. In his first appearance as a professional in the Open – his only other came as a novice amateur six years ago – Tiley was so nervous on the practice range beforehand that he feared he might miss the ball on the first tee.

But Tiley did no such thing. Six birdies later, with no bogeys on his card, he reached the 18th green as the leading English performer. Given the billing of his illustrious compatriots as title contenders, this was very definitely a tale of the unexpected if it was not for the Open's tradition of having a total unknown on the first-day leaderboard.

Not only was he one stroke ahead of Tiger Woods but also Lee Westwood. Paul Casey had a 69, Justin Rose a 70 and Ian Poulter a 71 but Luke Donald struggled to a disappointing 73. Westwood, who is playing with an injured right calf, was impressive given that he was out in the worst of the conditions in the afternoon.

Westwood has had three top-three finishes in the majors in the last year, dating back to his agonising near-miss at Turnberry. But the 37-year-old has discovered the secret of putting himself in contention and five birdies in a row to close out the front nine was a serious sign of intent. After a lower skimmer into the 17th green, followed by a wave to his manager, Chubby Chandler, to say that, of course, he meant it and had not mis-hit it, Westwood missed his birdie chance there and at the last. Better now than on Sunday.

Tiley, who went to college in the US, turned professional less than three years ago. He first went to play on the Asian Tour. Having got through the Qualifying School he phoned Chandler, who as well as Westwood manages McIlroy and other stars, and asked: "What the hell do I do now?" Chandler has kept an eye out for the lad but missed out on a potential sponsorship deal. Dealing with the heat in the Far East was bad enough but the food was not always to his liking either. "I could have been sponsored by Imodium at the time," he said.

Tiley returned to play on mini-tours back here and now has a place on the Challenge Tour, the feeder circuit to the main European Tour. With every euro crucial towards earning his full tour card Tiley was hesitant to take three weeks off for the Open. First he needed to qualify, which he did after a play-off. "It's almost a lottery getting in the Open but Chubby said I should go and do it," Tiley said. "I'm pleased I took his advice."

Having got here, he felt right at home. Links golf is second nature to him after learning at the Royal Cinque Ports club in Deal, a stern links test. "The shots seem to suit my eye," he said.

Having won the Egyptian Open last October, an unofficial event but featuring such luminaries as Colin Montgomerie, Tiley already has an 88-year-old trophy on his sideboard – now for the oldest of them all, the claret jug?

"I played well today and I'm aiming to do the same tomorrow. Obviously, there is going to be a little bit more pressure and more people watching to see what happens. Today's my best-ever day in golf – but watch this space."