Edoardo Molinari (Getty Images)
Edoardo Molinari showed why he is currently the Challenge Tour Number One with a second successive round of 67 to grab a share of the lead with the English duo of Gary Boyd and Andrew Marshall on day two of the Kazakhstan Open.
The Italian, who won the Piemonte Open in his homeland earlier this year and has only missed one cut all season, seems set to extend his lead at the top of the Challenge Tour Rankings after moving to ten under par and seeing his three closest rivals, Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts and the English duo of Andrew Butterfield and Richard McEvoy, all miss the cut.
Molinari had to return to Zhailjau Golf Resort in Almaty this morning in order to complete his opening round, which had been affected by rain, and promptly picked up where he left off yesterday with two birdies in his closing three holes.
A further seven birdies in his second round saw the Turin resident set the benchmark on ten under par, which was matched late in the day by overnight leader Boyd and his compatriot Marshall, who equalled the course record Boyd had set with a round of 63 on the opening day.
Molinari said: “I played very well today, and finally holed some putts. I’ve been putting well for the past two or three weeks, and today was better still. But today I didn’t play as well as I did yesterday – the conditions were so tough, they must’ve added at least three shots to everyone’s score. It was probably my best round of the year, in the circumstances. It was raining so hard at times that you could’ve easily played your way out of the tournament, so I’m very happy to be leading the tournament.
“My aim at the start of the week was to try to extend my advantage at the top of the Rankings. A good finish here would obviously boost my chances of finishing the year as the Number One. It would be the biggest achievement of my professional career if I could win the Rankings. But it’s not going to be easy, because there are a lot of good players behind me.”
One of them is Boyd, who is currently tenth in the Rankings but could leap right into the reckoning if he were to collect the €64,000 first prize.
Boyd was unable to reproduce his scintillating strokeplay of the opening day, but still professed himself pleased with a battling round of 71 – despite a bogey on his last hole, where his ball found a watery grave.
He said: “I didn’t drive the ball as well as I did yesterday, and when you find the rough it’s so easy to make bogeys out there – so sometimes you’re just trying to keep the double bogeys off your card. But I battled away and had a good finish with the eagle on the sixth hole and a birdie on the eighth, although the bogey on the ninth left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. But there’s still two more rounds to go, and I’m hoping I’ve got my bad day out the way.
“It’s always hard to follow up a low score with another one, because you tend to get more frustrated when things aren’t going your way. But I’m going to work on my driving on the range for half an hour, and hopefully iron out the creases. Tomorrow it’s just about finding the fairways and greens, then hopefully that’ll give me a chance going into Sunday.”
Boyd’s compatriot Marshall, with whom he shared dinner after the opening round, is also hopeful of a big weekend, having failed to capitalise on some promising positions throughout the season.
Marshall has just missed one cut all season, but has also only managed one top ten finish all year. But if he can continue his sparkling form on the greens – his second round featured a mere 22 putts – there is every chance Marshall could record his maiden Challenge Tour title.
He said: “I only had ten putts on the front nine, and 12 on the back nine. If I could do that every week, I’d be a millionaire! It always comes down to the putting, and that’s what’s left me down this year. But today it just felt easy. To shoot a 63 was awesome – I think the last time was at the Austrian Open in 2001. So I’ve had to wait a while.
“But there’s 36 holes left, so if I don’t follow it up it’ll count for nothing. My aim at the start of the week was to finish in the top three here, because that should guarantee me my card for next season. That hasn’t changed. There’s no way I’m going to shoot 63 again, but if I can shoot 68 on the next two days, I’ll have half a chance.”
Ireland’s Simon Thornton and Scotland’s Peter Whiteford are tied for fourth place on nine under par after recording respective rounds of 66 and 67.
Whiteford is in no position to relax, however, having slipped to 19th place in the Rankings after four missed cuts in a row.
Despite an opening round of 68 yesterday and a front nine of 33 this morning, the Scot was by his own frank admission still struggling with his game – particularly off the tee, where he was battling with a tendency to pull his drives left.
With penal rough lining the fairways, Whiteford was becoming increasingly reliant on his powers of recovery to stay under par.
But after making an adjustment with his set-up on the back nine, the penny dropped and Whiteford can now look forward to a weekend which could make or break his season.
He said: “My game’s been pretty horrendous lately, and that continued yesterday. I shot a 68 in the rain which looks like a great score on paper, but I had to rely on a lot of up and downs – and I’m talking from about 60 yards, not just from the edge of the green! Even for the first ten or 12 holes of my round this morning, I still wasn’t feeling very comfortable. I was pulling everything left – and the further right I aimed right, the further left the ball went! But for the last five or six holes I made an adjustment – almost as a last resort – and it seems to have done the tick, because it was much more like the sort of golf I know I’m capable of producing.
“Before then, the confidence still wasn’t there, despite the fact that I was seven under par. For about a round and a half, I’d hardly hit a fairway. I’ve never had to battle so much – golf shouldn’t have to be that hard! The rough’s so tough in places, I couldn’t even reach the greens on some holes. So I’ve been having to rely on my short game, and fortunately it was in good order – particularly my putting. That’s the key for me – if I’m putting well, I feel I can win tournaments. So now I’m putting well and managing to keep my drives in play, I’m feeling a lot more positive about life. Hopefully I can keep it going for the next two days.”
Another player with troubles, this time of a more personal nature, is Thornton, who has struggled to concentrate on his golf with both his wife and father currently unwell back home.
Perhaps perversely, however, his domestic woes have taken the pressure off his golf, and he flourished with a flawless round of 66.
He said: “I didn’t come here with any expectations this week – my wife’s not very well back home, so to be honest I’d rather have stayed with her than flown out here. I pulled out last week because of it, and I seriously considered not playing this week. So it’s been very hard to concentrate on my golf, but in a funny way it’s maybe made it easier for me, because the game doesn’t matter so much at the moment.
“Once I’d decided I would come and play, I just thought to myself that I’d give it a real good go. And so far that’s what I’ve done. I played really well yesterday – I hardly missed a green all day. I didn’t play quite so well this morning, particularly on the greens, but then on my back nine a few putts started to drop and I was off and running. I missed a few fairways, but when I did I was fortunate in that the rough wasn’t too penal.”
On the sixth hole – his 15th – Thornton certainly enjoyed a stroke of luck when two spectators found his ball nestled beneath a sapling. He took a free drop, smacked a three wood to within three feet and sunk the putt for an eagle three.
Switzerland’s Julien Clément eagled the same hole en route to a round of 69 which moved him to eight under par.
He was joined on that mark by England’s Chris Gane, who signed for a bogey-free round of 66, Sweden’s Peter Gustafsson, New Zealand’s Gareth Paddison and Frenchman Charles-Edouard Russo.