The European Challenge Tour’s Apulia San Domenico Grand Final is underway, with four players tied atop the leaderboard at this, the most crucial event of the season, where 20 of the elite field of 45 will earn a dream ticket to The 2006 European Tour.
The English pair of Benn Barham and James Hepworth, Frenchman Olivier David and Scotland’s Marc Warren are leading the way after round one at the beautiful San Domenico Golf club in Southern Italy, with England’s Lee James and Marco Ruiz of Paraguay just one shot off the early pace.
Challenge Tour Number One Fredrik Widmark of Sweden is among the nine players on three under par while the players in 20th and 21st place on the Rankings – Toni Karjalainen of Finland and Englishman James Heath – made highly contrasting starts to their nerve wracking weeks.
Indeed, Karjalianen, who posted a two under par 70, can safeguard his place among the top 20 if he continues his first round form, while Heath has it all to do if he is to break into the all important top 20 after a disappointing 77.
Two of the first round leaders, David and Hepworth, who are respectively 27th and 39th on the Rankings, need a big result to earn their Tour cards, while Barham and Warren are looking to overhaul Widmark at the top of the Rankings by picking the €42,800 first prize.
David was the first of the leaders to post a 67, after which the philosophical Frenchman gave his thoughts on the week ahead. The 27 year old believes that, while he has to play well to have any chance of winning this week, his fate is very much in the lap of the golfing Gods.
He said: “It’s nice to make a good start and be among the leaders after the first round this week because it is such an important week for everyone and you don’t want to be down the leaderboard after the first round.
“I need to finish in the top three this week to get my card. If I finish third I should make the top 20, if I can take second then I will get in between tenth and 15th place and if I win I will be in the top ten.
“I know that I can win this week because I have won before on the Challenge Tour and once you win a tournament out here then you know that you can do it again. I really believe that it has to be your week in terms of luck and everything else going your way. Every day I play golf I try to do my best, but to win you have to get the breaks with a good bounce here and there. I don’t know who decides that – if it’s God or someone else but you have to get the breaks!”
Hepworth has gone through such poor run of form that he arrived in Italy with a wholly pessimistic outlook. The Englishman has made a point of not looking at the Rankings and not thinking about the permutations of the San Domenico Grand Final as he tries to recapture top form.
“To be honest, I am not even interested in what I need to do this week because I have been playing so badly for the past few weeks that my attitude was to come here and try and win some money before getting ready to go to the Tour School,” said Hepworth.
“If I do better than that then great, but that is my general attitude just now. I have just been off for the past few months and my expectations have always been high so I just thought that I would lower them and see what happens.
“Obviously if I am still in contention during the final round then the attitude will change, but I’m not getting too excited about that just yet – it’s just nice to have a good start.”
At tenth on the Rankings, Barham has given himself a great chance to break into the top five and perhaps overhaul Widmark if results go his way. The 29 year old, who took the 13th card in 2002 came to Italy with one thing on his mind – victory.
“You have got to try and treat this week like any other tournament,” said Barham. “In my position, the more money I win then the higher up the top ten I can go so hopefully I can keep it going because I came here with the intention of winning the tournament.
“I went to see my coach last week and I have come here full of confidence in what I am doing technique wise and thankfully it has paid off.”
Warren, who won £10,000 at the red Bull Final Five Shoot-Out on Tuesday evening is playing with a supreme confidence, which shone throughout his bogey free opening round.
“In a sense, this is a stress free week for me because I have the card secured, but that’s not how I am looking at it,” said the Scot. “There is still a lot to play for. If I can win this week I can win the Rankings and that would be massive. My goal at the start of the year was to win the Rankings and if I can manage to win here that will mean that I have won three times this year, which would be pretty special.
“I did everything well today – I drove the ball well and my iron play was solid. I think I only missed two greens in regulation all day and the putter was working well – they just didn’t drop all day. There is still a hell of a lot to do this week but it’s good for the confidence to be at the top of the leaderboard."