It’s probably not hard to get inspired in the South African Open when Ernie Els is the competition and he shoots 67, and fellow South African Jbe’ Kruger managed to go one better in the first round at Glendower Golf Club on Thursday.
Kruger and Englishman Andy Sullivan are the first-round leaders of the second oldest national open in golf on six-under-par 66, with Els in a tie for third one shot back with Denmark’s Lasse Jensen and 2008 champion Richard Sterne.
Spaniard Jordi Garcia Pinto and South African Erik van Rooyen also challenged for the lead before falling away in the closing holes, Pinto with three successive bogeys for a 68 and Van Rooyen with dropped shots on 17 and 18 for a 69.
It was an excellent day all-round for Kruger, who produced the only bogey-free round and enjoyed the treat of seeing his name just above his childhood hero’s on the SA Open leaderboard.
“It was a perfect start to the year after two weeks off, you couldn’t ask for a better way to get the confidence back. I hit my irons very well today, I only hit a couple of fairways but the greens are still very good. If you hit it straight, then there are a lot of birdies out there,” Kruger said.
“But it’s great for South African golf that Ernie is in contention, it’s just because it’s Ernie Els and you have to respect him. But I’m one ahead of him and that’s very nice too,” the diminutive 28-year-old said with an impish smile.
The excellence of his iron-play meant Kruger was able to get out of the rough when he strayed off the tee, but for the rest of the field, the cloying Kikuyu was a nightmare.
“If you miss from the tee, it is so tough to put the second on the green. So if you miss one shot, you’re going to get bogey or worse,” Pinto said.
The well-travelled Sterne was even more outspoken.
“If you don’t hit the fairway then this course is as brutal as I’ve seen, I’ve seen a few things in my career but this is the worst rough. It’s a great golf course and it really doesn’t need much tricking up.
“I think they’ve overdone it a bit with the rough. On the fourth, I was only about eight metres off the fairway and I could only hit a lob-wedge 10 yards. You just can’t advance the ball, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. I get that it’s a national Open, but in the British and U.S. Opens, you get thick rough but you can still advance the ball 120 metres.
“This kikuyu is so knitted together, if we didn’t have spotters you wouldn’t find your ball in it. It’s crazy. If they want to make the course tougher, they should just firm up the greens,” Sterne said.
Els, however, held the opposite view, but then the five-time SA Open champion has miraculous powers when it comes to golf courses.
“The organisers are getting soft, they had complaints and they cut the rough down this morning. You now can get decent lies in the rough and I hope they leave it to grow now again,” Els said after an inspired round that even he said reminded him of the good old days.
“I’m thrilled with my round. I had a really nice back nine, I hit probably every green and had a lot of looks at birdie. Physically I feel very good, it felt like the old days out there today and it’s nice to be back,” Els said.
The return of Els, now the official ambassador for the SA Open, created plenty of excitement and a large crowd followed him all morning at Glendower, which is close to where he grew up in Kempton Park.
Kruger is also an East Rand boy and, with Charl Schwartzel handily placed on four-under-par, Sterne strongly in contention and Thomas Aiken, George Coetzee and Branden Grace also all under par, a thrilling event looks in store as the 2015 golf year gets underway.