Scottish Hydro Challenge (Getty Images)
Simon Thornton came into the Italian Federation Cup in need of a big performance, and the Irishman duly got off to the perfect start with a round of 65 to grab the lead on the opening day of the €150,000 event.
With over 100 players jostling for the 45 places available at next week’s season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, the pressure is on at Olgiata GC in Rome, Italy.
But Challenge Tour rookie Thornton, currently 64th in the Rankings, showed few signs of nerves with a seven under par round which featured an eagle at the 15th hole.
Thornton currently leads by one stroke from Wales’ Rhys Davies, who carded seven birdies in his round of 66, and the irrepressible Italian Edoardo Molinari, who joined Davies in a share of second place late in the day.
Frenchman Victor Rui is in a share of fourth place on five under par alongside Scotland’s Peter Whiteford, whose round of 67 included his first hole in one as a professional.
Thornton, whose best previous result is tied fourth at the Telenet Trophy, said: “I missed a birdie putt from two feet on the last hole, so my day could’ve been even better. But I’ve still got to be very happy with a 65 – I would have snapped your arm off if you’d offered me that at the start of the week. I putted really well, and sunk a couple from 25 feet, which is always a bit of a bonus. I managed to pick up the pace of the greens very early, which is important because they’re very quick this week.
“I also drove the ball very well, which you need to round here, with trees lining a few of the fairways. Until recently my driving had been my strong point, but over the last few weeks I’ve been spraying it everywhere. But I sorted it out on the driving range in Toulouse, and I drove the ball really well on the last two days. I didn’t necessarily score any better, but it gave me a lot of confidence to take into this week.
“I’m trying not to think about it as a big week – they’re all big weeks really. I just came into the event with the aim of giving it a right good, which is what I’ve done all year. A top three finish will definitely get me into the Grand Final, and even top five should be good enough. Obviously that’s in the back of my mind, because there’s no point just turning up and hoping for the best. So it certainly focuses your mind. If I can play as well over the next three days as I did today, I shouldn’t have too much to worry about.”
Molinari has very few worries of his own, having established an unassailable lead at the top of the Challenge Tour Rankings after a record-breaking season. He used his time off last week to travel to London to visit renowned swing coach Dennis Pugh, who also coaches his younger brother Francesco.
Pugh must be delighted with the performances of both men, with Francesco having moved into the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking on the back of his runner-up finish at last week’s Portugal Masters.
Edoardo, who will partner Francesco at next month’s Omega Mission Hills World Cup, drew inspiration from his brother’s performance in Vilamoura. Ominously for the rest of the field, the former US Amateur Champion has now set his sights on rounding off his own season in some style by capturing the final two events, both of which are being played on home soil.
He said: “I didn’t think I played that well today, especially on the back nine, which was my front nine. But after the turn my game clicked into gear, and I started to putt a lot better. I probably should’ve picked up a few more shots, but overall I’m very happy, because it’s a good start to the week.
“There are only two tournaments left now, and my aim is to win both – that would round off the season very nicely. I’m unbeaten in Italy this year [he won the Piemonte Open], so hopefully I can keep my 100 per cent record! My parents are coming down to the Grand Final next week, so hopefully I can put on a good show for them.
“Then in terms of next season, I’m planning on playing all the events in South Africa, because I like the country. I might also get into Abu Dhabi – last year I wouldn’t have done, but two years ago I would’ve. It’s important to get off to a good start. Hopefully I can quickly earn enough to keep my card, and then set new goals later in the season. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Davies will join Molinari on The European Tour, having long since secured his card courtesy of victories on home soil and in Spain earlier in the year. But the talented Welshman, who enjoyed a stellar amateur career at college in America before turning professional in 2007, is still hopeful of finishing second in the Rankings behind Molinari.
Davies, who closed with two birdies, said: “I played very nicely and holed some nice putts for birdie, especially on the 10th and 12th, which were my first and third holes. Even though I bogeyed the 11th it gave me some momentum, and I felt like things were going my way from the start. I played solid golf for the rest of the round, so I’m very happy. There’s now seven rounds of the season left, and the aim is just to shoot as low as possible in each and every one of them.
“Once this season’s out the way, I can then start focusing on next year. After the Grand Final, I’ll have a sit down and think about my schedule. But in terms of my approach, I probably won’t change that much. There’s no point tinkering just for the sake of it. My form this year has been good enough to get me into this position, so I’ve just got to keep backing myself to get the results.
“Obviously the standard of players on the European Tour is that little bit harder and the courses will be that little bit harder, but that’s to be expected. I do feel the gap between the Challenge Tour and the main Tour is closing, which is helped in part by the fact that we’ve played on some really strong courses this year. So I feel I’m able to compete with the big boys, although I also feel I’m capable of improving and taking my game to another level. Now it’s just down to me to prove it.”
Whiteford will hope to join Davies in The 2010 Race to Dubai, but will need another strong week to cement his place in the top 15 in the Rankings. The red-hot Scot, who flew his five iron 187 yards all the way into the cup on the 16th hole, is currently €661 ahead of Wales Sion Bebb in 16th place in the Rankings.
But if he can continue the kind of form which carried him to top ten finishes in his last three events, he is confident of bouncing back to The European Tour at the first time of asking.
Whiteford, who started his round on the 10th tee, said: “I got off to a bit of a slow start today, but then birdied the 15th and the hole in one on the next certainly helped. It was a decent strike – and into the wind, I might add, in case anyone thinks I’m a wimp! I kicked on well after that, so it was a pleasing day. The main aim over the next two weeks is to stay inside the top 15, because there’s a world of difference between 15th and 16th place in terms of the number of starts you’ll get next season.
“So the plan is for two more solid weeks, and hopefully it’ll be good enough. But I can’t afford to think about it too much – I’ve just got to go out there and play golf. I’ve been playing a lot better in the last three tournaments, so hopefully I’m now over the blip I had in the middle of the season, because I played some total rubbish!”
Riu, currently 84th in the Rankings and therefore in need of victory to guarantee a berth at the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, did his chances no harm with a rousing round which included four birdies and an eagle at the 16th hole.
The opening round was suspended at 6.30pm due to bad light, with one group still out on the course. Denmark’s Mark Haastrup, England’s Richard McEvoy and Australian Andrew Tampion will return at 8am to complete their final hole.