The weather was gloomy and the wind blustery, but that didn't stop the afternoon field from dominating the first round of the South African Open at Glendower Golf Club on Thursday. By KEN BORLAND.
Matthew Nixon, the Englishman who managed to retain his European Tour card for the first time this year, snatched the lead late in the day as he birdied his 16th and eagled his 17th holes. Nixon’s eight-under-par 64 featured just 22 putts, the lowest of his career, and the 24-year-old, who began his round on the 10th tee, made the perfect start by birdieing his first three holes.
The lead had previously been shared between Italian Marco Crespi and Jbe’ Kruger, the South African who initially plied his international trade on the Asian Tour but won the European Tour’s Avantha Masters in India last year, the duo finishing the day one behind Nixon on seven-under-par 65.
Kruger lives in the Serengeti Golf Estate just up the road in Kempton Park and the 27-year-old is clearly relishing the comforts of home as he fired six birdies – four of them in a row from the 12th – and an eagle on the par-five eighth, while dropping just one shot, on the par-four 10th.
“Yesterday I was able to go home and I woke up in my own bed this morning, which was great and it just means you’re more relaxed. It’s a long time since I’ve played well, but the swing is coming back a little bit and I played fairly well. The highlight was how well I putted on the back nine,” Kruger said.
Christiaan Basson made the early running with a six-under-par 66 in the morning, with two top-class golfers lurking within sight of the lead in Retief Goosen (66) and Charl Schwartzel (67).
Goosen, who has only played 16 events this year after back surgery last August, made a fine start with birdies on the first two holes and another on the par-four fifth. A three-putt led to a bogey on the par-three sixth, but a birdie on eight wiped that out before a strong finish featured three more birdies on the back nine.
“It was a great start and I played solid out there, although I did have a couple of good breaks when bad tee-shots didn’t go too far into the trees. I had no issues with the back and the wind doesn’t affect you as much on this course because you can hit through it. A lot of holes were downwind coming in and then you can hit it forever,” Goosen said.
Schwartzel put together a meticulous, bogey-free round that was a triumph of planning by the highest-ranked golfer in the field.
“I had a plan mapped out, and I stuck by it, to basically eliminate mistakes. I only hit three drivers and I like to get a feel for the course, that’s why I played so many practice rounds here. A great finish [three birdies in his last four holes] made my score look even better, but I felt I hit the ball very well and I’m in a good position going forward,” Schwartzel said.
Schwartzel, the world number 22, headed a group of four golfers on five-under that included his younger brother Attie.
So far, the challenge of the international visitors – there have only been 13 overseas victories in the previous 102 editions of the SA Open – has been a strong one. Apart from leader Nixon and Crespi sharing second place, fellow Italian Andrea Pavan is on five-under-par alongside Denmark’s Morten Orum Madsen, while Englishmen Steve Surry, Simon Dyson and Tom Lewis, Australian Wade Ormsby and Daan Huizing of the Netherlands are also in the top 10.
Schwartzel is the obvious early favourite, however, to win the first SA Open to be held at Glendower since 1997 and the focus of the 2011 wearer of the Masters’ green jacket is clearly on finally adding his name to the trophy all the great South African golfers have won.
“This tournament means a lot to me, I would really like to win it, but whether that’s this year, next year or whenever, we’ll see. But it was nice to have a week off and it was a good opportunity to prepare properly,” Schwartzel said.
While Schwartzel takes heart in plans coming together, Nixon is playing with the confidence of someone who now believes he belongs on the European Tour. Having been required to win his card at qualifying school in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Nixon was spared the rigours of Q-School last week as he finished inside the top 110 in the Race to Dubai.
“I definitely feel that there’s a little bit more pressure off now. I’m able to plan my season better and I’ve brought a lot of self-confidence into it. I know I can play at this level now and that just helps to get the best out of me,” Nixon said. DM
Photo: Matthew Nixon (REUTERS/Regis Duvignau)
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