Justin Walters set aside his golf clubs for farm implements at the end of last year, but he shook off the rust impressively with a seven-under-par 64 over the West Course at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington to grab a share of the early first-round lead in the Joburg Open.
The 210-man field plays a round on each of the East and West Course at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington before the cut to the top 65 players and ties, after which the remainder of the 72-hole event is played over the demanding East Course for the €1.3-million prize fund in the tournament which is co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour.
Walters, who lost his mother towards the end of last year, but managed to finish his year on the European Tour with a second place in the Portugal Masters and a share of 10th in the Turkish Airlines Open, has started 2014 slowly, but had a share of the lead at seven-under with Scots Alastair Forsythe and Craig Lee, and Italy’s Edoardo Molinari (left below).
“I had nothing left in the tank at the end of last year,” said Walters, “and I needed to get away from the game. So I was really rusty – I didn’t do anything but work on the farm. So my swing felt like chopping wood, which is what I was doing for most of that time.”
He dropped a shot on the fourth, but that was the only blemish on his card for the day. “The start was the best part of my round,” he said.
“I started with three birdies in a row, and any time you do that it erases a lot of doubts and gives you a nice boost. It gets your tail up and puts you in the right direction, so that was the highlight. From there it was solid play; I just kept ticking over a few birdies, which is always good after a fast start,” he added.
With the lion’s share of low first rounds coming from the West Course, Walters was aware that he would have to follow up his first round with a good second round on the East Course. “In recent years the scoring has been low everywhere, so that’s how I’m looking at it,” he said. “Even though it’s the harder course you still have to try to shoot a low score to keep up, especially if Richard Sterne or Charl Schwartzel are in the kind of form they were in last year.”
It helped to be drawn with Molinari, who went as low as he did. ” Eddie is such a solid player. You just feed off him all the time – he doesn’t really hit many bad shots, he putts it great, he does everything great,” he said. “Certainly, when you step on the tee you know he’s going to play a good round, and if you can hang around with him you’re going to be right where you need to be.”
Like Walters, Molinari dropped just a single shot, while Forsyth was bogey-free in his round.
Around the East Course, Lee laid down the marker with his brilliant seven-under – that’s a 65 to the 64s from the West Course.