Ireland’s Kevin Phelan took on the East London Golf Club on Thursday with an aggression born out of his frustration at missing last year’s Africa Open cut despite being three-under-par, and his reward was a share of the first-round lead in the co-sanctioned Sunshine/European Tour event.
Phelan came to the Africa Open last year as a rookie pro and shot rounds of 69 and 70, which was not enough for him to make the cut. On Thursday he changed tactics and posted a five-under-par 67 despite a blustery wind that buffeted East London the whole day, giving him a share of the lead with Matt Ford.
“I played conservatively last year, which didn’t work very well, so I was more aggressive today. It led to some easy birdies and I think my longest birdie putt today was from six feet. I managed to keep the momentum going and I went for it any chance I got,” Phelan said after his round, which featured just one bogey.
Although he’s 36 years old, Ford is playing his first fully exempt season on the European Tour, but he said he’s not going to allow himself to get too excited over his remarkable 67, the only bogey-free round on a treacherous day at East London Golf Club.
“I’ve made a few good starts to tournaments but then not taken them through all four rounds, so I’m not going to get too excited.
“I think maybe I try a bit too hard because I haven’t had huge success before. I’m trying so hard to be better, I want it so much and sometimes that just increases the pressure. So the key for me is to keep relaxed. The top guys almost play with a sort of nonchalance, they portray an image that it doesn’t really matter to them, and I find it difficult to do that,” Ford, who made nine unsuccessful visits to Q-School, revealed.
And it’s not as if Englishman Ford was scrambling either. He was seldom in too much trouble and said the closest he came to dropping a shot were a couple of 10-foot par-putts which he sank.
While Phelan was aggressive and it paid off for him, two of the golfers tied for third a stroke behind the leaders said they made a conscious effort not to be too adventurous.
“I love this place. It’s a thinker’s course, not a bomber’s course. You have to manage your way around, and that’s the type of course that I like. It takes away the main weapon of some of the guys, some of the clubs they hit into par-fives are ridiculous, but they can’t do that here this week. Everyone is playing from the same place, because that’s where you have to put the ball, so it makes it a more level playing field,” Richard Bland said.
“It was a very decent wind out there today, it was really pumping at times, so you had to play good links golf at the end of the day. Your short game had to be tidy and there are a couple of driveable par-fours out there, but there’s also a lot of trouble around. So a lot of my game plan was staying away from mistakes,” David Howell said.
Neil Schietekat was the leading South African, also posting a 68 to sit alongside Englishmen Bland, Howell and John Parry, as well as Spaniard Eduardo de la Riva.
Oliver Bekker and Trevor Fisher Junior shot 69s to sit in a tie for eighth with three more Englishmen – Matthew Fitzpatrick, Tom Lewis and Chris Lloyd, as well as Frenchman Gregory Havret.
The South African most people have tipped to once again do well at East London Golf Club was Jaco van Zyl, but he started poorly with three bogeys on the front nine. But a late surge of five birdies in seven holes saw the 13-time Sunshine Tour winner climb to two-under-par and put himself well in contention.
Schietekat has four top-20 finishes in co-sanctioned events and is experienced enough to know he can’t get ahead of himself even though he’s made a great start to the Africa Open.
“I’ve certainly got a lot more confidence, but this is a crazy game – after my first professional win I missed the cut the next week! So I’m just going to try and do what I did today, keep to my routines and think of good tournaments in the past,” Schietekat said.
But Phelan, who shot a 66 in the final round of last weekend’s Joburg Open to tie for second, says he now feels like he can win on the European Tour and he looks like he is going to be a dangerous competitor.
“Last year I didn’t really know that I could compete on this tour, but then I did well towards the end of the season and I really enjoyed contending in Hong Kong, even though I finished second. Last week I had a chance as well and it’s just great to be in contention,” Phelan said.