Thongchai leads; Els, Louis in the hunt
Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee seized an early three-stroke lead of the Volvo Golf Champions after firing a seven-under par round of 65 in blustery conditions in the first round at Durban Country Club on Thursday.
The Thai, who gained entry into the event courtesy of his win at the 2012 ISPS Handa Wales Open, scorched his way to an outward nine of 31 with five birdies. Further birdies at the 10th and 15th holes followed, and he cancelled out his only bogey of the day at the 17th with a fine up-and-down from the sand at the 18th for birdie, which leaves him three clear of South Africans Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen.
“It’s very, very exciting to come here because I've never been to South Africa before. And also we came here and looked at the courses, and they’re hard to get. Yesterday we practiced but the wind direction was different than today. I thought about using a lot of irons from the tee, and that's most important,” a content Jaidee said after his round.
“I made good chances to get on the green, and then we were very good today because we putted well. We made very good up-and-downs too, and made long putts from everywhere. We had 24 or 25 putts today, and I haven’t putted this well in a long time. So I’m very happy to finish seven under in the first round of 2013,” he added.
Winds gusted in excess of 35 km/h at times, and rain came steadily down for much of the afternoon. But the 43 year-old remained unphased, and called on the experience he gained from his victory in similar conditions in Wales last year.
“We have no choice. Everyone has to play in this, and I enjoy it,” Jaidee noted. “We played most of the time in Europe in conditions like this. Like Scotland, there is a lot of wind, and this is a links course - it's almost the same. I won in the same wind like this in Wales, and it was also raining in that one. I think today is a very good score, seven under par.”
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Els, who won the 2011 South African Open at the same course, was pleased with his round of 68, and he, like his compatriot Oosthuizen, amassed seven birdies despite enduring the worst of the conditions with a late tee-time.
“It was tough. It was the first round of the year, and we had to work really hard today. It was blustery right from the first hole, but then the rain came really hard for our whole back nine. So just to keep the ball in play, and to keep it down – it was a totally different golf course from what I remember yesterday,” the Big Easy said.
“It really tested our game today, and that’s what this golf course can do. When the weather gets like that it’s very tough,” he added.
A score of 25-under was needed to win the SA Open two years ago, and the four-time major winner appeared to going for a similarly low scoring as he kicked off 2013 with three straight birdies. A double-bogey at the fourth hole halted his progress, but Els recovered well and a birdie at the 18th will see him start at four-under when play resumes tomorrow.
“I had an unbelievable start. Then I was in between clubs on the fourth tee and I was going to hit a six-iron. I went to a five-iron and I basically just made a bad swing on top of the ball. And then I didn't have much of a second shot. I played quite a nice second, just stuck it on the green, but I hit a putt that I thought was going to be very fast and it wasn't. And I three-putted, so that wasn't great.
“I was off to such a great start, so to give shots back like that wasn't good. The second you think that in this game you have it, you go double-bogey. But I think I knuckled down nicely. I had to get the ball up-and-down numerous times. It's a tough day so I'm just pleased to be able to sit here and see what happens the next few days,” Els said.
Former Open champion Oosthuizen was one group ahead of Els, and also had to adjust his strategy to deal with the adverse conditions.
“You know, you couldn't even put up an umbrella because the rain was actually coming in underneath it, so that didn't really help!” Oosthuizen quipped.
“But yeah, it was tough. I just wanted to hit fairways and greens, and give myself some opportunities. I started hitting the ball well the last few holes.
“It's a good spot to be in. There are still a lot of birdies out there. I just hope the rain stays away,” he added.