Scotsman Craig Miller leads the inaugural Al Ahram-Jolie Ville Sharm El Sheikh Challenge after his six under par 64 put him one shot ahead of Argentinian Miguel Fernandez and his fellow countryman Peter Whiteford – who managed to break 30 on his way back to the clubhouse with a back nine of just 29 shots.
Miller, originally from Fife but now based in Germany, has been playing on the European Professional Development (EDP) Tour in Central Europe for the past five years, and secured his Challenge Tour Membership last year after finishing fifth on the EDP Tour’s Order of Merit.
The 32 year old, who runs a golf school in Germany, took control of round one in Sharm El Sheikh with seven birdies and one dropped shot at the stunning 6546 yard, par 70 Jolie Ville Golf and Resort.
“I started playing on the EDP Tour five years ago,” said Miller after signing for 64. “It all came together for me last season when I won a couple of events and gained my card for the Challenge Tour. My game has changed considerably over those five years and I have improved every season – I just want to continue on that upward learning curve.
“The Challenge Tour is a step up for me, but I’m playing well at the moment, and I didn’t make many mistakes out there today – I played beautifully from tee to green and saw a few nice putts dropping as well so I’m really pleased with my first round.
“The course – especially the greens – and facilities here are magnificent, and the conditions are perfect for golf.”
Fernandez, already a winner on the European Challenge Tour Schedule this season following his victory at the Panama Masters 2004, continued his fantastic form with an opening 65, but it was Whiteford’s scorecard that caught the eye as he came home in 29 to join Fernandez in a tie for second place.
The 23 year old Scot started his round at the par five tenth, which he bogeyed, before dropping another shot on the 12th. He got a shot back on the 16th before exploding into top form and registering four birdies, an eagle and four pars on the front nine for a magnificent return, and a first round score of 65.
“I’m usually a slow starter – so it can only get better from here!” quipped Whiteford after holing out on the ninth green. “I’m delighted with that, I don’t really know where it came from – things just clicked into place and I started to make a lot of putts so it’s very pleasing for me.”
Fernandez is hoping to follow his fellow countryman, and namesake, Sebastian, onto The European Tour after such a great start to the season. Sebastian won the opening event of the Challenge Tour season in 2003 (the Costa Rica Open, presented by credomatic Mastercard) and went on to finish the year in ninth place on the Challenge Tour Rankings.
He said: “I played well today, and I’m happy with a five under for the first round. I though the Jolie Ville course was very good.
“It has been a great start to the season for me – I knew at the start of the year that in I was playing well going into the events in Panama and Costa Rica and to win in Panama was a great result for me, because it allowed me to join the Challenge Tour.
“Now my aim for the year is to follow my fellow countryman, Sebastian Fernandez onto The European Tour by securing a place in the top 15 of the Rankings.”
It was a perfect day for Golf at the Jolie Ville Golf and Resort, and that was reflected by yet another low scoring Challenge Tour field. There are eight players just one shot behind Fernandez and Whiteford on four under, and a further 14 on three under par.
Marc Warren, another Scotsman, is among those who shot 66, his round including an eagle two at the par four 16th. The 23 year old was a member of the victorious Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup side of 2001 and is hoping to follow the example of that hugely successful side who triumphed over the USA at Sea Island almost three years ago.
“My eagle really got me going today,” said Warren. “I started at the tenth tee and had just been plodding along nicely when I hit a three wood to about eight feet at the 16th and made the putt for eagle. I then birdied the third and fourth before being shell shocked by two bogeys in a row on six and seven.
“But I responded as well as I could have by birdieing my closing two holes to get back to four under so I’m pleased about that – in fact I was in a good mood all day out there, just walking about, smiling and enjoying myself!
“This is only my second Challenge Tour event of the year, but I’m hoping to take one of the top 15 places on the Rankings by the end of the season and secure a European Tour Card.
“When I look at our Walker Cup team of 2001, I see guys like Luke Donald, Nick Dougherty, Jamie Elson, Graeme McDowell, Richard McEvoy and, of course, my good mate Steven O’Hara, all doing really well for themselves at the top level and it is a great example for me to follow.
“Our Walker Cup captain, Peter McEvoy said to the team at the time that he thought it was one of the best Walker Cup sides he had ever seen, and his comments have been proven right when you look at the achievements of a lot of the team who have since turned professional – it would be nice to join the rest of the guys on The European Tour next season.”
The best placed Egyptian golfer after round one is the country’s top Amateur player, Amr Abou El Ela, who registered a one over par 71 and was delighted with his return in this, the first ever European professional golf event ever staged in Egypt.
“I really enjoyed today,” said Abou El Ela, “and to play so well in the company of so many great players from all over the world was a real honour. It is an honour to have players of the standard of the European Challenge Tour here in Egypt, and we can only learn from this experience this week.
“Golf in Egypt is a sport that has to grow, in many ways. This tournament can show people all over the world that Egypt is a golfing destination of the highest quality, and we want to show everyone that we have the conditions and are building the facilities to compete with places like Spain and Portugal as a golfing destination.
“Also, the Challenge Tour’s presence here will encourage our children to take up the game – and we have to look to our future generations to continue the good work that has already gone into making Egypt a wonderful place to play golf.”