South African veteran Nic Henning has not finished in the top 100 of the Sunshine Tour order of merit since 2009 and he readily admitted that his record-equalling nine-under-par 62 in the first round of the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club on Thursday had come out of the blue.
“I have no idea where today’s round came from, the last couple of years I’ve been playing horrible golf and you can see that in my results. But I’ve been playing a lot recently and it feels fantastic, it’s been a long time since I’ve had such a good round,” Henning said.
The 45-year-old reached the milestone of 300 Sunshine Tour tournaments in September 2010, having turned pro in 1992, and Thursday’s glorious round was perhaps reward for his sheer determination to keep going through many lean years.
“You’ve just got to keep on going, fortunately I did well enough earlier in my career to qualify for this tournament through the career money-list, because pre-qualifying, which I had to do a couple of years ago, is really hit-and-miss. But you’ve got to just keep grinding away and believing you can do it,” Henning, the nephew of South African golfing great Harold, said.
His round of 62 equals the course record for the West Course set by Desvonde Botes in 2007, but the more challenging East Course lies in wait in Friday’s second round. Except for the 66s shot on the East Course by another South African veteran, Wallie Coetsee, and Englishman Sam Hutsby, all the other golfers in the top-10 on the leaderboard played on the West Course.
“My confidence is okay but I’m a bit apprehensive because the East Course is much tougher, but the secret is driving the ball nicely. Fortunately, throughout my 24 years on tour my driving has been very good.
“But today was only one round and I hope tomorrow brings a decent round as well. I’m just thinking about that first tee shot,” Henning said.
Two other seasoned local golfers, Titch Moore and Tjaart van der Walt, as well as Thomas Pieters of Belgium, also tamed the West Course with eight-under-par 63s.
Pieters eagled the par-five 15th, but then dropped shots on the 16th and 18th holes to leave him a little irritated.
Scoring is usually low on the West Course, but there is still plenty of timber to ensnare the errant golfer. Nevertheless, there were a host of cheerful golfers coming off that side of Royal Johannesburg and Kensington, with South Africans Dean Burmester and Garth Mulroy, as well as Australian Jason Scrivener, shooting 64s, and Joachim B. Hansen, Scott Henry, Byeong-hun An, Jorge Campillo, Andrew Curlewis and Simon Dyson carding 65s to join Coetsee and Hutsby on six-under.
Defending champion George Coetzee is sitting comfortably a stroke further back after a 66 on the West Course, while Thomas Aiken is also on five-under-par after a 67 on the East Course.
Two-time champion Richard Sterne is on three-under, while newly-announced European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke is on level-par.
Apart from Henning’s heroics, the other highlight of the day was the hole-in-one Moore registered on the 98-metre par-three fifth hole.
“I got off to a nice start and was a couple-under. I got up to the fifth and it was a perfect yardage for my 58-degree wedge, I pitched it a little behind the flag and it spun in. It never looked like it was going to miss. To make a one on the card is always special. It was awesome,” Moore said.
While the ace obviously helped catapult Moore up the leaderboard, it was a top-class round in general by the 39-year-old.
“I’m pleased with the round and to shoot eight-under on the West is always a good start. I played nicely and hit a lot of greens. I gave myself a lot of chances and putted solid,” Moore said.
Van der Walt was also delighted with his round after his comeback from a fatigue-inducing illness which now has him on a strict diet.
“It’s a lengthy process, but I’m getting fitter and stronger. I only had 25-26 putts today and that’s what it’s all about, as well as confidence. Golf is a sport we tend to over-complicate, but you play better when you simplify things,” Van der Walt said.