England’s Richard Bland continued his fine run of recent form by topping the Trophée du Golf Club de Genève leaderboard with an opening round of 65.
Having finished inside the top ten in his last three European Challenge Tour appearances, Bland swiftly got back in the groove at Golf Club de Genève, carding eight birdies and a solitary bogey to lead by one shot from Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello and Australia’s Matthew Tampion.
Bland, a close friend of former Southampton star Matt Le Tissier, is full of confidence after finishing third at last week’s Lexus Open and runner-up at the Challenge of Ireland presented by Glasson, and is now determined to add to his solitary Challenge Tour victory, at the 2001 Grand Final.
The 35 year old, who has a wealth of European Tour experience, said: “I’ve been playing pretty well for a couple of months now, and my short game and putting in particular have improved. So even when I don’t find the greens, more often that not I’m still walking away with pars, which is so crucial for your momentum. I’m definitely old enough – and probably stupid enough – to know what works for me now, and what doesn’t. This time I’m really sticking to it, and not straying from the beaten track.
“I’ve been knocking on the door for a while now, and hopefully this week it might open for me, because it’s been a while since my last win. But it’s just nice to be playing well at the business end of the season. When I stand on the tee, I can be pretty confident of where the ball’s likely to end up. I don’t feel like I’ve got too many weaknesses at the moment, whereas in the past maybe you’re waiting for a bad shot. I’ve never been one to brag or boast because I’m not really an arrogant person, but it feels pretty good right now.”
Cabrera Bello and Tampion are both on six under par after signing for rounds of 66. The Australian arrived in Geneva fresh from his maiden Challenge Tour triumph, and promptly continued the form which saw him lift the Challenge of Ireland presented by Glasson title by posting six birdies in a flawless round of golf.
Tampion is reaping the rewards of a recent return to the Victoria Institute of Sport in his home town Melbourne, where he received tuition from Head Coach Denis McDade, who also taught Tampion’s compatriots Aaron Baddeley and Marcus Fraser, amongst others.
He said: “I went home to work with my coach for a few weeks after St Omer, which is the only time I’ve missed the cut on the Challenge Tour this season. I came back feeling better about my game, and even though I just missed the cut at The Open, I took confidence from the fact that I could hold my own in that company. It was one of the best weeks of my life, and then winning in Ireland obviously gave me a massive confidence boost. That’s the reason I’m in this tournament – and I’m hoping to take advantage by climbing even further up the Rankings.”
The same applies to Cabrera Bello, who sits in 15th place in the Rankings thanks largely to his victory on the Challenge Tour’s last visit to Switzerland, at the Credit Suisse Challenge.
With four top 12 finishes and five missed cuts to his name the Spaniard, whose sister Emma is currently competing in the S4C Wales Ladies Championship of Europe on the Ladies European Tour, knows he must improve his consistency if he is to join the elite.
Cabrera Bello said: “I’ve been playing well lately, but playing well and scoring well are two completely different things. It shows how fine the margins are – a few missed putts here and there mean you miss the cut, but if they drop in then you can be challenging for the title. Luckily for me it went my way today, but tomorrow may be a different story – although I hope not!”
Hot on the heels of Cabrera Bello on five under par is England’s Seve Benson, who currently sits second in Rankings. With a considerable prize fund up for grabs – 36 players are vying for €210,000 – a high finish in Geneva would greatly enhance Benson’s prospects of joining fellow Wentworth Club scholarship scheme graduate Ross Fisher on The European Tour.
But Benson is refusing to allow his thoughts to stray to what might become of his debut season on the Challenge Tour.
He said: “It’s one of the biggest tournaments of the year so it’s nice to get a good start, but you’ve also got to finish well. There’s only nine tournaments left after this but there’s still an awful lot of money to be won, so a lot can happen between now and the end of the season. Even though I’m in a good position there’s a lot of golf to be played, so I can’t afford to take my eye off the ball or get carried away thinking about next season, because that’s a dangerous game to play. Of course I’d love to be playing on The European Tour next season, but I’ve still got a job to do this year.”
Steven O’Hara is in a group of players one shot further back on four under par. This season the Scot, who enjoyed a sensational amateur career before turning professional in 2001, has returned to the Challenge Tour after a disappointing season on The European Tour saw him surrender his full playing privileges.
But the 28 year old is confident he has inadvertently found a cure for the putting woes which blighted his 2007 campaign.
O’Hara said: “I can feel my confidence slowly coming back, particularly in my putting stroke, which is now much more solid and consistent. I’ve always given myself plenty of birdie opportunities, but the difference now is that I’m taking a few more. I’ve really struggled for the past two years on the greens.
“I was chopping and changing with my putters and my methods, which meant I didn’t really give myself a chance of getting used to anything. But on the Challenge Tour this year there aren’t equipment trucks with huge selections of putters to choose from every week, so I’ve had to stick with what I’ve got – and so far it seems to be working fairly well. Long may it continue.”
Like his fellow players O’Hara was grateful for the generosity shown by the club’s members, who agreed to take over the running of this unique event, formerly the Rolex Trophy.
He said: “It’s an amazing act – I don’t think it’s ever happened on the Challenge Tour before. So we all really appreciate what they’ve done.”