The overseas dominance of this summer’s Sunshine Tour co-sanctioned events continued in the first round of the Africa Open at East London Golf Club on Thursday as European golfers filled 10 of the top 13 places on the leaderboard.
Ireland’s Kevin Phelan and Englishman Matt Ford shot five-under-par 67s to put themselves at the top of that leaderboard, one stroke ahead of five golfers on four-under-par, with another six competitors on three-under.
Phelan teed off from the ninth hole at 7.30am and managed to put an early bogey on the 11th – which was really tough into the wind on Thursday – behind him with two birdies before the turn and then a superb front nine that featured a birdie on the par-five first and then a run of three successive birdies from the fifth.
Ford managed to keep bogeys entirely off his card, which was a highly impressive feat on a blustery day on the East Coast that definitely separated the men from the boys, and the 36-year-old was accurate in all facets of his play as he collected five birdies.
Phelan missed the cut in last year’s Africa Open after rounds of 69 and 70, and the 24-year-old said he made a conscious effort on Thursday to be aggressive on the short course, despite the treacherous wind, which led to some scintillating golf.
“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. It’s great to be in contention because last year I didn’t really know I could compete on the European Tour,” Phelan, who was tied for second in last week’s Joburg Open, said.
Ford has not yet enjoyed such success on tour, although he did shoot a 66 on the first day of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek. But that excellent round was the start of a pattern that has seen the son of a professional footballer post opening rounds of par or better in all six events this season but then shooting worse for the rest of all those tournaments. So Ford said he was trying to not get too excited about Thursday’s 67.
“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 revealed.
Englishmen Richard Bland, David Howell and John Parry are all sitting on four-under-par alongside the leading South African, Neil Schietekat, and Spaniard Eduardo de la Riva.
Matthew Fitzpatrick, who is yet to celebrate his 21st birthday, and fellow Englishmen Tom Lewis and Chris Lloyd are all on three-under, tied with Frenchman Gregory Havret and South Africans Oliver Bekker and Trevor Fisher Junior.
The wind, blowing out of the south-west, was obviously a major factor on Thursday and it was fascinating to see the different approaches of the golfers. The aggression of Phelan was a successful approach, but so too was the conservative strategy taken by the likes of Howell and Bland.
“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,” 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,” Howell said.
Jaco van Zyl, one of the tournament favourites, produced the comeback of the day as he recovered from three bogeys on the front nine, finishing with five birdies in his last seven holes to post a two-under 70.
Darren Clarke, Andy Sullivan, Edoardo Molinari and Keith Horne were all back in the middle of the field after shooting level-par 72s.