George leads SA challenge at Royal St George’s

He showed that his recent form was not a flash in the pan, and George Coetzee carded an opening one-under-par 69 in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s on Thursday.

Playing in his first major championship after securing the final spot in the International Final Qualifier Europe last month, he held things together on a day when his more illustrious countrymen struggled.

His card had three bogeys and four birdies, leaving him four shots off the pace set by Dane Thomas Bjorn and English amateur Tom Lewis, and one ahead of the next-best South African, 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman.

This year’s Masters champion Charl Schwartzel was joined on one-over-par 71 by Rory Sabbatini, and 2002 Open champion Ernie Els had a share of 71st place with defending champion Louis Oosthuizen.

Open Championship rookies Neil Schietekat and Martin Maritz survived relatively early starts and the tougher conditions of the first half of the day to each card three-over 73.

Thomas Aiken was four-over and Retief Goosen six-over for the opening round, and, while not out of it yet, they will need decent second rounds to make the top 70 and ties who will make the cut.

Coetzee took advantage of the quieter conditions in the afternoon to fire his approach shots at the pins – a far riskier proposition in the morning – and the strategy paid off as he hit 13 of the 18 greens in regulation.

And if he is able to exploit the expected calm weather forecast for his morning tee-off in the second round, and straighten out his good distance off the tee, he will be able to shift himself into a position to actually be in the hunt for a major title over the weekend.

Lewis’ round was the story of the day: His 65 total claimed the record for the lowest round ever shot by an amateur at the Open, bettering Frank Stranahan’s 66 in 1950 and similar scores by Tiger Woods and Justin Rose in 1996 and 1998, respectively.

It also made him the first amateur to lead the Open after the first round since former R&A Secretary, Michael Bonallack, achieved that feat with a 70 at Carnoustie in 1968.

Bjorn set the target score of 65, five under par, in some of the worst of the morning weather. He came so close to winning at Sandwich behind Ben Curtis in 2003, and admitted his game had been in a poor state since the death of his father earlier this year. “Dad meant a lot to me,” an emotional Bjorn said. “He would have been very proud of what I did today.”

Bjorn only got into the Open on Monday night when Fiji’s Vijay Singh pulled out through injury.

Rory McIlroy, the overwhelming favourite for the title, carded a one-over-par 71 together with world number one Luke Donald, and Lee Westwood, Donald’s predecessor at the top of the Official World Golf Rankings.

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