Former Ryder Cup player Peter Baker got his quest for a second consecutive Challenge Tour title off to the perfect start when he moved into a share of the lead with Welshman Stuart Manley in the Estoril Challenge de Portugal.
Last Sunday Baker claimed his first individual professional victory for 14 years when he triumphed in the Credit Suisse Challenge and an excellent opening six under par 65 at Quinta da Marinha gave the 39 year old Englishman real hope of back to back title successes and the chance to regain his European Tour card at the end of the season through the Challenge Tour Rankings.
“We can think about that nearer Sunday but I have to admit I’m delighted with that start,” he said. “I was a little tired after the victory in Switzerland last weekend but I got off to great start in my round here and that was important to get me going again.”
Beginning his round at the tenth hole, Baker’s start was indeed impressive as he rattled in four birdies in his first six holes before adding another one at the 18th to be ‘out’ in 31.
Turning for home, an increase in the strength of the wind made his second nine holes a little harder, but his only dropped shot of the day at the fifth, where he found a plugged lie in a greenside bunker, was negated by birdies at two of the Estoril course’s five par threes – the second and the seventh.
“I had a chance for a final birdie at the ninth hole which is another one of the par threes but the ball just slipped by from about 12 feet,” said Baker. “But I can’t be too disappointed.
“Obviously I want to get back onto The European Tour but I said at the start of the year that I will try and do that through the Challenge Tour which I feel is the best way and I intend to play the year here and try and finish in the top 20 of the Rankings at the end of the season.
“It can be a little hard out here sometimes because I am regularly 20 or 30 yards behind most of the young lads from the tee but I try to use my head and experience wherever possible after that and I think today showed that.”
While Baker started well it was the finish which was impressive for joint leader Manley, four birdies in his last six holes helping the Welshman to a back nine of 33 and giving further credence to the fact that a switch of putter two weeks ago had been exactly the right decision.
“My putting really was the difference today,” he said. “I have played fantastically well tee to green all year but I just couldn’t get the ball in the hole which is why I haven’t been able to get into the top tens but today was much better.
“I used to be a great putter a couple of years ago but I just lost my way with that a bit recently but over the past couple of weeks there is the sign that it is coming back and I think that’s the reason I finished 20th last week in Switzerland which was my best finish of the season so far.
“If I can continue to play as well from tee to green as I have been doing and then succeed in getting my putting in order, I don’t think I’ll be far away.”
Baker and Manley led the way by a shot from Norwegian Jan-Are Larsen who carded a 66 while four players shared fourth place after opening with 67s including Chile’s Felipe Aguilar, at Number Three the highest ranked player in the field from the current Challenge Tour Rankings.
Also on 67 was Spain’s Eduardo de la Riva who produced one of the shots of the day, holing in one with a seven iron at the 166 yard seventh. The 25 year old from Barcelona’s feat was matched later in the day by fellow countryman Manuel Quiros who aced the 142 yard second with a pitching wedge on his way to a level par 71.