Despite concerted late efforts by England’s John Mellor and Finland’s Roope Kakko to catch them, Sweden’s Christian Nilsson and Italy’s Matteo Delpodio still lead the way after day one of the inaugural Margara Diehl-Ako Platinum Open on the European Challenge Tour.
A brace of closing birdies – which took his tally to nine – saw Delpodio, who plays most of his golf on the Alps Tour, match Nilsson’s round of 65 at Golf Club Margara in his native Italy.
Delpodio, who lives in nearby Turin, said: “I made two mistakes, but made up for it with two really good putts. One was from about 15 metres on the fourth hole, where I was more likely to make three putts than hole it!
“But then on the first hole, I’d hit a wedge over the green for bogey – even my Mother could’ve made par from that position! But I didn’t expect to shoot 65, because I’ve only played the course once before, so I have to be very happy.”
A smile also returned to Nilsson’s face after the Swede, who has dropped to 18th in the Rankings, used last week’s break to correct his errant putting stroke.
That practice made for a perfect round, as Nilsson collected seven birdies to join Delpodio at the top of the leaderboard on seven under par.
He said: “I lost a lot of confidence after missing those cuts, and suddenly you no longer believe in your game. If you’re putting well the greens seem easy to read, but if you’re not suddenly it becomes impossible. Today it felt quite easy again, which is just as well because I need a big couple of weeks to guarantee my European Tour card for next year.”
One shot back in a share of third place on six under par is Mellor, who bounced back from a missed cut last week and a “disappointing” campaign overall with a flawless round of golf.
He said: “It’s been a desperately disappointing season – there’s no getting away from that. But it’d be nice to finish it on a high. I’ve made a conscious effort not to force the issue and just relax and play my shots – going back to basics, if you like. Even though I missed the cut last week, I could feel it coming together and was pretty pleased with how I played – though I’m obviously far more pleased today!”
Kakko also had reasons to be cheerful after matching Mellor’s 66, though he did suffer one bogey at the third hole. The Finn is currently 45th in the Rankings and therefore on the cusp of qualification for next week’s season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, where the top 45 players will compete for the 20 available cards for The 2009 European Tour International Schedule.
Kakko said: “Everyone here on the Challenge Tour wants that ‘golden ticket’, and if I can keep playing the way I did today, I might have half a chance. I don’t think I’ve ever putted as well as I did today. Everything just seemed to go in – I must’ve only missed two or three all day. It’s great when it happens – though it doesn’t happen enough for me!”
Earlier in the day, England’s Seve Benson, Sweden’s Björn Pettersson and Wales Liam Bond also signed for rounds of 66.
By his own admission Pettersson, currently 50th in the Rankings, is in need of a big week if he is to join The Race to Dubai on The European Tour. The Swede, who started his round on the tenth tee, made a blistering birdie-eagle start, and nearly drove off with a Lancia Delta car after his ball struck the pin on the par three 15th hole.
He said: “I was four under after five holes, and then lipped out with my tee shot on the 15th – so it wasn’t a bad start! I could’ve done with a new car, because I’ve got to give mine back at the end of the year!”
Pettersson was joined on six under par by Benson, who has targeted the Number One spot in the Rankings. Despite a bogey at the last hole, Benson – the subject of a double-page feature in the Times newspaper last week – was content with his round of 66.
The 21 year old is currently fourth in the Rankings which are led by his compatriot Gary Lockerbie, who shot a 68. Benson said: “I hit a ‘fat’ wedge shot on the last, which was pretty embarrassing. So that left a slightly sour taste in the mouth, but overall I’ve got to be pretty pleased because I struck the ball nicely.”
Of his interview with the Times, he said: “I’ve finally made it! But on a serious note, it was quite surprising and very flattering – although I haven’t had it framed yet!”
The Wentworth Academy graduate is guaranteed his European Tour playing privileges for next season, but Welshman Bond is in the unenviable position of having to finish in the top five this week to gain entry to next week’s Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.
Bond said: “I played really solidly, which is just as well because I have to – maybe I play my best golf under pressure! The highlight was probably hitting my four iron to a foot for eagle on the 11th, but my all-round game was good. Hopefully I can keep it up for the next three days to get into the Grand Final, then another good week there and all of a sudden I’m a millionaire!”
Lloyd Saltman of Scotland, who reached the turn in 31, is in a group of players two shots back on four under par. Currently lying in 100th place in the Rankings, the Scot would probably need a victory here to avoid a premature end to his Challenge Tour campaign.
He said: “I’ve been playing pretty well for a while now – I only really had one bad hole, when I dumped it in the water on the par five 11th. But other than that I struck it nicely, and I’m definitely in the tournament. The aim has to be to qualify for the Grand Final – it’s a big ask, but if I keep playing the way I have it’s definitely possible.”
With thick fog having delayed play by an hour, two groups will need to return in the morning in order to complete their opening rounds.