He started early in the day, and after an 18-hole buffeting by the wind at East London Golf Club, Ireland’s Kevin Phelan had set the first-round target of five-under-par 67 in the Africa Open Golf Challenge.
He shared that lead with Matt Ford of England, who started over four hours later than Phelan, and they had a one-stroke edge over a group of five players on four-under-par 68.
Phelan finished last week’s Joburg Open in a share of second – a good performance, but one which left him slightly disappointed because his world ranking meant he lost out on a spot in this year’s Open Championship to fellow runners-up David Howell and Anthony Wall.
“It was nice to play well last week and I did well before that in India,” said Phelan. “I felt really good going into last week and I’m happy to be playing well back-to-back in tournaments.”
Unlike Ford, who signed for his 67 without a blemish on his card, Phelan made just one bogey to go with his six birdies. “I took advantage of the opportunities I had and any time I was close to a green I made it up and down,” he said. “That’s where all the birdies came from.”
The wind made scoring difficult, particularly on the holes which played into the stiff south-westerly. “It was the opposite wind to what we had in practice, so the experience we got those rounds could almost be scrapped!” he said. “It was quite similar to last year’s wind. It’s narrow in places out here, so you have to keep it in front of you and know where you’re going.
“Last year I played those tight holes more conservatively and it didn’t work out very well, so I played them more aggressively this time. I just went for it and hit good shots, so they ended up being easy birdies.”
That aggression often got him close to the hole, which made making birdies easy, even in the face of a small battle with finding the pace of the greens. “I holed out nicely from six feet and in,” he said. “One of my birdies was 10 feet, and that was probably the longest putt I holed. I left myself a lot of work to do with pace putting, but I holed out nicely, which always helps the score.”
Ford was thrilled to post his bogey-free round. “I think it’s the first time this year that I’ve had no bogeys, so that will keep a couple of people at home happy,” he said. “I had a couple of scrambles to start with, but then I started playing pretty nicely. From the middle of the round and all the way through to the end I gave myself some good opportunities. It was a good first round.”
The leading South African after the opening round was Neil Schietekat, who took his maiden Sunshine Tour title in the 2013 Platinum Classic. He was one of the five on four-under-par 68. “This course is a sleeping beast. With no wind guys will shoot seven or eight under around here, but I’ve heard that it will blow quite hard for the week,” he said.
With the wind, he found his iron-play was given a searching examination. “You could have 150 metres, but you’re playing it 180 because the wind is blowing so hard. You’ve got to feel the ball around and keep it under the wind,” he added.
For Phelan, it’s about riding the wave of confidence he’s on after last week. “Last week I played really well and it’s a lot more fun when you have a chance to win than when you’re struggling to make the cut,” he said.