Home hope Jonathan Caldwell is in hot pursuit of Sweden’s Ake Nilsson, who will carry a slender lead into the third day of the Challenge of Ireland presented by Moyvalley.
A morning round of 68, compiled in damp conditions, saw Nilsson carry on where he left at Moyvalley Hotel and Golf Resort in Co. Kildare, Ireland. The Swede notched seven birdies to move to nine under par, one shot clear of Caldwell and Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts, and two clear of Englishman Robert Coles.
Welshman Rhys Davies and Scotland’s Greig Hutcheon complete the top six after recording respective rounds of 67 and 70. The joint lowest round of the day was posted by Ireland’s Michael McGeady, who set a new course record with a 66 which was matched late in the day by Colsaerts.
But the man they all still have to catch is Nilsson, who feels more relaxed on the Challenge Tour after struggling somewhat to cope with the hectic pace of life on The European Tour.
He said: “When I used to come over to Challenge Tour events after playing mainly in the Nordic League in the past, I put too much pressure on myself to do well instead of just trying to relax and enjoy myself, which affected my form. But having come from the main Tour, I don’t feel as much pressure to perform this week, and I think that’s showed in the way I’ve played.
“Finishing with two birdies was great, especially as I’d dropped a shot after going in the water at the sixth hole. I wasn’t quite so good off the tee today, but when I did make birdie chances more often than not I managed to take them, because my putter was working well for me again today. The greens are perfect, because they’re fair and true. The ball always holds its line – there are no real nasty surprises.”
Fellow Qualifying School graduate Caldwell is also playing his first Challenge Tour event of the season. After a second successive round of 68, the Ulsterman is well in contention to capture his maiden title since turning professional late last year.
He said: “I’m really pleased with how I’m striking the ball at the moment. I’m also making hardly any mistakes, which is the key to scoring well out there. I found the deep rough for the first time in 36 holes today, and walked off with a double bogey. So that shows the importance of staying on the short stuff. I’ve been driving it well lately, and if you do that, you’ve got a good chance of picking up birdies, because the greens are very good here.
“I’d love to be there or thereabouts come Sunday. I haven’t won a tournament since turning pro, so to do it in Ireland would be great. I’ve got a few friends and family down here with me, and my brother’s on my bag. So I’m looking forward to the weekend, and hopefully we can get the same kind of weather. It’d be good to take some decent form back onto the main Tour with me, because I felt like I was getting the hang of it. I had a habit of pulling my drives slightly left, but I’ve done some work on it and we seem to be getting there. My putting’s also improved, so hopefully I can put it all together over the weekend.”
The more experienced Coles is well used to being in contention going into the weekend, having won in Morocco earlier in the season and finished runner-up on two other occasions.
He said: “I still feel I can play better. I putted well today and yesterday, but other parts of my game aren’t quite at 100%. But I suppose if I can still score well without playing at my absolute best, that has to be a good sign. Sometimes you play well and don’t score, then other times you’re not at your best but the puts drop. That’s the beauty of golf I suppose. Over the course of four rounds, it evens itself out and the best man usually wins. I just hope it can be me.”
Whilst Coles bids for a third Challenge Tour title, Davies can scent a maiden victory thanks largely to an explosive finish to his morning round.
When the Welshman, who started on the 10th hole, stood on the sixth tee on one under par, there was little sign of the fireworks to come.
But buoyed by three successive birdies, the boy from Bridgend decided to attack the pin on the ninth green – and promptly holed his seven iron second shot for a closing eagle.
That moved Davies – whose highest Challenge Tour finish came in last year’s Challenge of Ireland – to a share of fifth place on six under par.
The 24 year old came into the event in fine form, having secured a top 20 finish in last week’s Celtic Manor Wales Open on The European Tour, before gaining a place in The Open Championship through International Final Qualifying on Monday.
But even he was taken aback by his blistering finish, saying: “It caught me by surprise – I wasn’t really expecting it! Nothing too much was really happening for most of the round – I made a few chances and hit a few good putts which didn’t go in. But then I reached the par five sixth in two and two-putted for birdie, holed one from the edge of the green on the seventh, made another easy birdie on the eighth, and holed my second shot for eagle on the last. So from nowhere, all of a sudden I’m in the mix.
“It was quite tough early on, because it was raining quite hard and the wind was up, which meant the course was playing even longer. But then it cleared up a little bit, and I started picking up a few shots. So it’s been a good week for me so far, starting with Open qualifying on Monday, and hopefully it’ll carry on for two more days. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing – holing putts and making birdies. It’s a very fair course – if you play well, you’ll be rewarded.”
McGeady was rewarded for some swing changes which, having take a while to bed in, produced some spectacular results in a round of 66.
The genial Irishman, who won the SWALEC Wales Challenge last year and came close to winning the Challenge of Ireland in 2006, collected seven birdies and just a solitary bogey to move from joint 83rd at the start of play into a tie for 11th place alongside fellow Irishman Colm Moriarty.
McGeady said: “That’s definitely put me back in the hunt. I’ve been working on my swing lately, and with me it always takes a little while for the changes to kick in. It still wasn’t brilliant today, but I learned from my bad shots. Getting off to a great start with two birdies is always a bonus, and then I kicked on from there. I managed to keep it in play for the most part and my caddy also made a couple of good calls, so I’ve got to thank him for that. It’s his first time caddying for me, so if he carries on like this, he might have a job for life!
“My season really starts here. I’m playing the next five or six Challenge Tour events, so if I play well over the next couple of months, it’ll really set me up for the rest of the season. But for now I’m concentrating on this week, because you always want to do well in your home tournaments. I got a taste for it in Wales last year, but to do it again in Ireland would be something special. My Dad and my wife Lisa are coming along to watch over the weekend, so hopefully I can put on a show for them.”