The opening round of the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final was dominated by players most in need of big performances, as Scotland’s Greig Hutcheon and South Africa’s Branden Grace led the way by one shot on six under par.
With many of the players near the head of the Challenge Tour Rankings enduring an indifferent day at San Domenico Golf in Puglia, Italy, attention turned to the race to capture the last few remaining places on The European Tour.
With Hutcheon currently in 33rd place in the Rankings and Grace two places back in 35th, the duo could not have timed their respective returns to form any better as they seek to leapfrog into the top 20 and so join The Race to Dubai.
Despite bogeying the final hole after getting a “flier” from the rough with his approach shot, Hutcheon was still in upbeat mood as he reflected on a round of 65.
He said: “It was a good day at the office – I made lots of nice putts. I also found the rough off the tee a couple of times, which cost me – particularly on the last hole. But overall I’ve got to be pretty pleased, because it’s a decent start to a very big week.
“Realistically I probably need to finish in the top three here to have any chance of getting my European Tour card for next year, so I’m under no illusions – it’s going to be tough. But that’s helped me with my focus coming into the week, and hopefully I’ll be up to the challenge – only time will tell. If I keep putting the way I did, I might have half a chance of pulling it off.”
For Hutcheon, it would mark a return to the stage he last graced in 2004, prior to suffering a serious shoulder injury.
But a season spent competing amongst the golfing elite on The European Tour would be a first for the precociously talented Grace, who has drawn favourable reviews from the legendary Gary Player.
The youngster’s flawless round of 65 was comfortably his best start to a tournament in this, his first full Challenge Tour campaign.
Grace, who closed his round with a 12 foot putt for birdie, said: “It was a pretty pleasing finish to a very nice round. It’s probably the biggest week of my career so far, so it was crucial to get off to a good start. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, because it’s my first season on the Challenge Tour and I’ve already achieved the goal I set at the start of the year – to finish in the top 45. Anything above and beyond that would be a bonus – albeit a very big bonus!
“I’m just going to go all out for birdies, and see where it gets me. If I can finish third or higher here I should get into the top 20 and maybe even the top 15, which would be fantastic. My aim is always to win and I’ve been close a couple of times, but to win the last event of the season would be great. I’ve been playing well enough recently, just making some stupid mistakes which have cost me. So if I can cut out the mistakes and keep the bogeys off the card over the next three days, I’ll be a very happy man.”
One shot behind Grace in a tie for third place on five under par are Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello, the in-form Finn Roope Kakko, England’s John Morgan and Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger.
Having won once this season en route to 14th place in the Rankings, Cabrera Bello’s European Tour card for next season is all but secure; but the other three men find themselves in a similar predicament to Grace.
By his own admission Morgan, whose round of 66 featured six birdies, has at times been let down by a lack of consistency this term.
But the genial 30 year old – who made his name on the US PGA Tour before a series of epileptic fits affected his game – is determined to return to former glories and so banish the disappointment of a season which has, by his own elevated standards, stuttered somewhat.
He said: “I’m a happy boy. I only made one mistake all day when I overclubbed on the 13th hole, where I should probably have been thinking about a birdie and ended up walking away with a bogey. So my day could’ve been even better, and I had a few birdie chances coming down the home stretch which I didn’t convert. But most of my putts on the front nine dropped in, so I can’t complain too much because life’s pretty good. The weather’s gorgeous and the course is in great shape, so we should all count our blessings to be here.
“Having said that, life would be a lot better still if I could get a win under my belt here, which would probably take me into the top 15 and get me a good card for next season. I know what’s needed – now I’ve just got to go out there and do it! It’s easier said than done, but I’m going to give it everything this week. My season hasn’t been great compared to what I know I’m capable of, but I can forget about all that if I finish on a high here.”
Wiesberger is also aiming for a high finish, having missed the cut at last week’s Margara Diehl-Ako Platinum Open. But the Austrian bounced back to form by posting five birdies in a bogey-free round of 66.
He said: “I felt great out there, particularly on the greens. It’s a course I like, because it suits my game. So I’ve really enjoyed myself so far, and it helps that I’ve got my brother on my bag. Hopefully I can keep it up and have a big week.
“If I don’t manage to make it into the top 20 in the Rankings, I’d try to get onto The European Tour through the Qualifying School. I played well in Catalunya at the second stage last year, so I’ve got good memories of the place. But hopefully I can do the business here and not have to worry about it.”
Of the players challenging for the Number One spot currently held by England’s David Horsey, fourth-placed Gareth Maybin enjoyed the most productive afternoon.
The man from Belfast finished the day on four under par, one shot ahead of Wil Besseling of The Netherlands, who is currently in tenth place.
Horsey is a further shot back on two under par, with England’s Gary Lockerbie (third), Scotland’s Steven O’Hara (seventh) and Holland’s Taco Remkes (second) one back on one under.
Remkes’ round was commendable, given that the Dutchman had spent some of the previous day in hospital on a drip after suffering a bout of food poisoning.
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