Former Ryder Cup player Peter Baker of England put a disappointing start to the season behind him with an opening round of 68 in the Challenge of Ireland presented by Moyvalley.
With the afternoon starters yet to complete their rounds at Moyvalley Hotel and Golf Resort, Baker currently shares leadership of the €150,000 event with home favourite Jonathan Caldwell, current Number Three Robert Coles of England, Scotland’s Greig Hutcheon and Norway’s Peter Kaensche.
Having missed the cut in all three Challenge Tour events he has played this season, Baker could perhaps be forgiven for arriving in Co. Kildare with expectations low.
But after posting four birdies in a flawless round of golf, the 41 year old feels his game is getting back to the levels which saw him lift three European Tour titles in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when he represented Europe in The Ryder Cup.
Baker said: “The bit of rain we had this morning probably made life a little easier on the greens, because it meant you could fly your approach shots at the flag. So I was able to put a few close, and when I didn’t my putter got me out of trouble. I missed a few chances for birdie on the back nine. But overall I’ve got be pleased with a 68, because it’s a lot better than it has been recently.
“I actually played fairly well in my last two tournaments, but just missed the cut by one shot. So I knew my game wasn’t too far away. For whatever reason, it hadn’t quite been happening for me. It wasn’t as if I was hitting the ball all over the place, because then I would’ve been worried. I just couldn’t score at all. I took a long time off over the winter, which in hindsight was maybe a bit of a mistake. But I felt good today, so hopefully that’s all behind me now and there are better times ahead.”
Another player hoping for a brighter future after an indifferent start to the campaign is Hutcheon, who is yet to record a top 60 finish in four starts this season.
But with some important events to come in the next two weeks, Hutcheon was pleased to show signs of a return to form over a course which he described as “excellent”.
The Scot, who started his round on the 10th hole, said: “I played nicely today. I struggled a little bit to start with, but birdied the 18th hole to get back to level par, and then was pretty pleased with my back nine. I played well yesterday in the Pro-Am, which we won, so I knew my game was in good shape.
“It’s going to have to be in good shape, because we’ve got an important few weeks coming up. I said to myself when I was practising last week that if I can play well in the next few events, then I’ve got a great chance to catch some of the players ahead of me in the Rankings, which will make up for a slow start to the season. Having said that, I haven’t got a great record in St Omer, because the course doesn’t really suit my game.
“But I really liked the course here straight away. [Co-designer] Darren Clarke’s done a good job with the layout, and the greenkeepers have done a very good job with the upkeep, because it’s in fantastic condition. Even though it’s quite new the course has got really good character, because they’ve managed to incorporate most of the natural features. That’s quite unusual in itself, because young courses tend to be slightly featureless. But not this one. So they should be very proud of the job they’ve done.”
Another player impressed with the course, a joint collaboration between Clarke and European Golf Design, is home hope Caldwell, who like Baker and Hutcheon has found the going tough at times this term.
After turning professional upon earning his card through the Qualifying School – Final Stage, Caldwell has struggled to adjust to life on The European Tour.
But having largely ironed out the imperfections in his game and mastered some minor changes to his swing, the Ulsterman is confident of kick-starting his season with an improved performance in front of his home supporters.
Caldwell said: “The course is in great shape, particularly the greens. The rough’s tough though, so the key to scoring low is to stay out of it if possible. Because if you go in it, you can’t get much more than a wedge to your ball. But more often than not I managed to avoid the thick stuff, and my putter worked well for most of the day. So overall I’ve got to be pleased with the way I’m playing now, because I had a tough start to the season.
“It’s slowly starting to come together now though. I probably made life a bit tougher for myself than I needed to, because I made a couple of swing changes which took longer than I expected to bed in. But I’m getting close now. My main aim over the next few weeks is to earn enough money to get into the Kazakhstan Open at the end of the season.”
The consistent Coles has somewhat loftier ambitions, having powered his way to third place in the Rankings thanks largely to his recent victory in Morocco.
With Italian Edoardo Molinari and England’s Gary Boyd both absent, this week gives Coles the perfect opportunity to close the gap on the two men currently above him in the Rankings.
But the 36 year old Essex “boy”, who is yet to finish outside the top 20 in five starts this season, was almost forced to withdraw from the event after suffering with food poison at the start of the week.
He said: “I was sick all day Monday, and then when I did make it out of bed on Tuesday, I was struggling to hit the ball! But I felt a bit better yesterday, so I decided to play and I’m glad I did. I got off to the perfect start, with 15 and 25-foot putts for birdie on my first two holes. After that I played nicely, and only made two mistakes all day really. I pulled my drive into the water on the 18th hole, so did well to make bogey, and then missed a short putt for par on the third hole. But that apart, my game’s in good shape.
“We’ve got a big couple of weeks coming up, so I’ve got to keep it going. With the prize money on offer in St Omer and Sweden, it’s almost like playing five regular events in the space of a fortnight. So it’ll be nice if I can carry my form into those events. They won’t break your season, but they could make it.”
Kaensche made it a five-way tie at the top with a birdie on the last hole to match Baker’s flawless round of 68. The Norwegian’s round was the exact opposite of the Englishman’s, as he reached the turn in 36 shots and came home in 32, whereas Baker picked up four shots on the way out and parred his closing nine holes.