In his maiden Challenge Tour appearance of the season and on his first visit to the country, Sweden’s Ake Nilsson showed a liking for Ireland by grabbing the lead on the opening day of the Challenge of Ireland presented by Moyvalley.
Having earned his European Tour card through the Qualifying School – Final last November, Nilsson has at times struggled to make headway in The Race to Dubai this year.
But he restored some confidence with a fluent round of 67 at Moyvalley Hotel and Golf Resort in Co. Kildare to finish the day on five under par, one shot clear of a group of eight players which includes former Ryder Cup player Peter Baker, leading home hope Jonathan Caldwell and current Number Three Robert Coles.
Nilsson said: “I opened with a bogey, so my round didn’t get off to the best start. But then I bounced back with a 30ft putt for birdie on the second, which got me going. The key today was definitely my putting, because I also sunk another 30ft putt on the 17th hole. I’m usually a streaky putter – today was a good day, but tomorrow could be a bad day! I just hope my putter stays warm for the next three days. It would be good if the weather stays warm for the next few days as well, although I have no problem playing in tough conditions.”
“My season so far has been okay – not brilliant. I’ve been playing quite well in some events this season, but it can be hard to get a rhythm going if you go a couple of weeks without playing. I could play five or six weeks in a row, no problem. The more I play, the better I get. I’ll probably play a few more events on the Challenge Tour from now on, starting with St Omer next week. Hopefully I can go there in good form.”
Another player hoping for brighter days after a difficult start to his maiden European Tour campaign is Caldwell, who like Nilsson also earned his card through the Qualifying School.
Having largely ironed out the imperfections in his game and mastered some minor changes to his swing, the Ulsterman is now 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.”
In contrast, the ultra-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.”
Baker, the Argentinean duo of Julian Etulain and Cesar Monasterio, Scotland’s Greig Hutcheon, German Max Kramer and Norway’s Peter Kaensche made it an eight-way tie for second place, the latter courtesy of a final hole birdie which completed a flawless round of 68.
The Norwegian’s round was the reverse of Baker’s, as he reached the turn in 36 shots and came home in 32; whereas the Englishman picked up four shots on the way out, before parring every hole on the back nine.
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 big-money events to come in France and Sweden over the next two weeks, Hutcheon was pleased to show signs of a return to form over a course which he praised 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.”