Scotland’s Steven O’Hara sits on top of a packed leaderboard after the first day of the Kazakhstan Open, the most lucrative event on the regular Challenge Tour Schedule.
A round of 66 at Nurtau Golf Club in Almaty, Kazakhstan, saw O’Hara – 14th in the Rankings – finish one shot clear of the chasing pack, which includes current Number Three Seve Benson of England.
With a €430,000 prize fund on offer, O’Hara could not have chosen a better time to post his lowest opening round of the season.
The Scot said: “I played well in China last week, and carried that form into this week. I got going with a birdie on the first hole, and didn’t look back. It could’ve been even better, but I got a bit unlucky on the last when my ball rolled into a hole and I could only move it 20 yards forward.
“Other than that, I have to be very pleased with my round. I drove the ball well and putted very nicely, which is a pretty good combination. So it’s a great start to a big week. If I can finish in the top five here, my card for next season would be all but guaranteed.”
Benson, twice a winner this season, would gain instant promotion to The European Tour with a third victory of the season, but the Wentworth Academy graduate has vowed to continue playing on the Challenge Tour to secure the coveted Number One slot.
He said: “I played really well from tee to green, and got up and down when I had to. One bad drive on the seventh hole cost me a double bogey, but I bounced back with a birdie, which is always pleasing. It’s a great course – tough but fair.”
Benson’s round of 67 was matched by compatriot Adam Gee, who notched an eagle two on the sixth hole – which was only appropriate, as the 27 year old had taken a trip to a local eagle sanctuary the day before.
Gee, who underwent a skin graft after a serious car crash ten years ago, said: “I’ve had two pretty special days now. After holding a huge eagle, I felt ready for anything today! It’s nice to shoot a low round on the first day, particularly in such an important tournament. I’ve got myself into some decent positions before, only to hit a brick wall – hopefully I can get through the wall this week.”
Joining Gee on five under par were in-form Italian Gregory Molteni, Ireland’s Colm Moriarty, Brazilian Alexandre Rocha, and Belgium’s Nicolas Vanhootegem.
Northern Irish starlet Gareth Shaw – who recently turned professional – had also moved to five under par after nine holes, but two bogeys on the back nine checked the youngster’s charge, and he finished on three under par.
In contrast, another recent convert to the paid ranks, England’s Gary Wolstenholme, endured a torrid outward nine, turning in 41. But the 48 year old, who enjoyed a hugely successful amateur career before turning professional last month, recovered with four birdies to finish on two over par.
Wolstenholme said: “I feared I might shoot 90 at one point! But I still really enjoyed myself, because it’s a great course and all the guys are good company – even though they’re much younger than me, and in some cases much better!”