Argentina’s Rafael Echenique gave himself the perfect birthday gift at the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final – the first round lead at the European Challenge Tour’s most important event of the season. Echenique, who turned 26 today, produced an explosive finish of three birdies in his closing four holes at San Domenico Golf to post a six under par 65 and move into the perfect position to guarantee himself a place on The 2007 European Tour.
Echenique leads Chilean Felipe Aguilar by one, with Welshman Mark Pilkington, Spain’s Alvaro Quiros, Argentina’s Hernan Rey and Shaun P Webster of England in a tie for third place after opening scores of four under par 67 at the inspirational San Domenico Golf on Italy’s south east coast.
It looked likely to be a solid opening for Echenique as he moved into the final stage of his first round, but he turned that into a marvellous first round by picking up strokes on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes to surge ahead of the elite 45 man field at this, the last event on the 2006 Challenge Tour Schedule.
The Argentinean, currently seventh on the Challenge Tour Rankings, is hoping to secure a place among the top ten come the end of the week, and he certainly boosted his chances of that with his excellent first round display.
“That was a very nice birthday gift to myself! I turned 26 today and this is a nice way to celebrate,” smiled Echenique. “I am not feeling extra pressure this week. I don’t think that you can start to think too much about things like that or you would not be able to focus on your game. I am just trying to go about everything quietly and focus only on the golf.”
Echenique’s response was typical of almost every player in the field. With so much at stake this week, and every competitor having a chance to win one of the 20 available European Tour cards through the final Rankings, the pressure on everyone is great, but each and every one of them refuses to publicly contemplate the myriad of possibilities that could befall them.
Aguilar would only talk of his need to play the most aggressive golf of his life as he needs to finish in the top three to have any chance of breaking into the top 20 from his current position of 40th.
Rey, meanwhile, at 20th on the current Rankings is in arguably the most pressurised position of them all with every player behind him watching what he is doing in the hope that they can steal his place.
The Argentinean, who is playing with an injured neck, gave those players behind him great hope when he double bogeyed the first hole at San Domenico Golf, but he managed to compose himself brilliantly and fought back to post an outstanding first round of four under 67.
That was good enough to join Pilkington, Quiros and Webster in a tie for third, with the Welshman now eyeing the Challenge Tour Number One spot after the current incumbent, Sweden’s Johan Axgren, carded a disappointing opening score of four over par 75.
Pilkington is second on the Rankings, trailing Axgren by €3853. If he can maintain such a healthy advantage over Axgren in the next three days, he will overtake him at the top of the Rankings.
With Axgren struggling, a top two finish at the €250,000 event would see Pilkington, who won for the first time as a professional at the Kazakhstan Open three weeks ago, crowned Challenge Tour Number One for the season.