Sion Bebb (Getty Images)
On a brutally tough opening day in which only eight of the 45-man field broke par, Welshman Sion E Bebb established a two-shot lead at the season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.
With high winds and even higher rough making life tough for the European Tour hopefuls at the €300,000 event, which is being played at San Domenico Golf in Puglia, Italy, for the fifth consecutive season, Bebb’s three under par round of 68 shone like a beacon.
Bebb is currently 16th in the Rankings, but has set his sights on breaking into the top 15 to ensure greater playing opportunities next season.
The Welshman’s closest pursuers include the English duo of Andrew Butterfield and Chris Gane, the French pair of Julien Guerrier and Alexandre Kaleka, the Scottish duo of Andrew McArthur and Peter Whiteford, and Australian Andrew Tampion, all of whom signed for rounds of 70.
Bebb, who closed with two birdies to cancel out his double bogey at the 14th hole, said: “I played really well on the front nine, but then suffered a setback with the bogey at the 12th, and then again with the double two holes later. I actually thought I’d hit a decent approach shot, but it came up short and ended up in the rocks by the lake. I tried to play it out but only ended up hitting it into the water, so from being four under par, suddenly I was only one under.
“My head was still spinning on the 15th tee and I didn’t play the hole very well, but I sank a 15 feet putt for par, and that helped settle me down. So I was really pleased to get it back with a good finish because I could’ve easily let the round get away from me, which would’ve been a shame after playing so well on the front nine.
“I’m probably slightly surprised to be leading by two, but with the wind, the deep rough and the narrow fairways, the course is playing very tough. It’s often difficult to find your ball in the rough, and when you do you just have to take your medicine and get it out of there with a wedge. But it’s the final event of the season, so it probably should be that way.
“It’s obviously a big week for everyone, me included. You try not to take notice of what the guys around you in the Rankings are doing, but it’s difficult not to sometimes. On the face of it there’s not too much difference between 15th and 16th place, but in reality there’s a lot of difference in terms of my category for next season. So that was the aim at the start of the week, and I’ve obviously made a good start.”
One place ahead of Bebb in the Rankings is Whiteford, who recovered his composure remarkably well after a traumatic opening to his round.
The Scot notched a triple bogey seven on the first hole which, at 499 yards in length and directly into a fierce headwind, is playing more like a par five.
But the remainder of Whiteford’s round was bogey-free, as he collected four birdies – including one at the last – to rectify the early damage.
He said: “The seven on the first was not a great way to start. You prepare for an event as best you can and then something like that happens. I went through the back of the green, and then duffed two chips. So my head was spinning a bit. My playing partner Chris Gane came up to me on the second tee and jokingly offered me a cuddle to cheer me up! But I came back well, and I’m now in a good position. It was tough going out there at times and it’s going to be a battle this week, but I enjoy a challenge like this.”
Like Whiteford, fellow Scot McArthur also fell victim to the opening hole, which saw just 12 pars and not a single birdie all day.
But the Glaswegian, currently 21st in the Rankings and in danger of just missing out on promotion to The European Tour for the third successive season, hit back with birdies at the second and third holes, and added another at the fifth to turn in 33.
A level par 37 on a brutal back nine – only five players managed to go lower all day – gave McArthur reasons to believe that this could finally be the week when his fortunes turn around.
He said: “I got in the bunker off the tee on the first hole and ended up right up against the face, so could only chop it out and ended up taking six. It’s easy to do that though when the course is playing as tough as this, and I’m sure there will be a fair few mistakes from everybody this week. I’ll just play away as usual and see where it takes me, and try to forget what other people are doing.”
One of the players McArthur is trying to overhaul is Gane, who currently sits 13th thanks chiefly to his runner-up finish at last month’s Kazakhstan Open.
Consolidation is thus the name of the game for Gane this week, and four birdies in a round of 70 was just what the doctor ordered.
He said: “I’ve played here for three of the last four years, and it’s a completely different golf course. It’s a great test even without the wind, but when you factor that in it can be pretty brutal at times. But that’s how it should be – it’s what you can expect on The European Tour next season. I’ve been lucky enough to play in Asia a few times, and the rough reminds me of some of the courses out there, in that it just sits down. You almost have to stand on the ball just to find it – I lost a couple in practice. But it’s good, in that it places the onus on accuracy and finding the fairways.
“I’m pleased with my start, and I’m in a nice position, both in terms of the tournament and the Rankings. I can only feel for the guys in 19th, 20th and 21st, because it must be tough. But I’ve got enough to worry about trying to stay in the top 15. I know Sion’s a few places behind me and he’s had a good day, but I can’t influence how other people play – I’m just concentrating on things which are under my control.”
One place behind Gane in the Rankings is 2006 Amateur Championship winner Guerrier, who posted two birdies in his final three holes to join the Englishman on one under par.
He said: “It was very tough to make birdie out there, so 71 was a good score. It’s also difficult to get into a good rhythm because of the wind, which is probably why the scores are quite high. But this is how it should be, not everyone shooting 65 or 66. It was difficult, but I enjoyed it.”
His compatriot Kaleka, who triumphed in Lyon in his first event as a professional but has since slowly slipped down the Rankings, is in need of a similar result this week if he is to end his maiden Challenge Tour campaign in style by securing a place in the top 20.
The Frenchman feels his putting will need to improve, but nonetheless professed himself pleased after closing his round of 71 with a birdie.
He said: “The rest of my game was good, but I didn’t putt very well. I didn’t feel confident with my putter all day, so I’ll go on the practice green and hopefully tomorrow will be much better. It’s strange because I’ve been putting well, but maybe the wind affected me today. Other than that I was pleased, because it’s a good start to the week. The goal is just to put together four good rounds, and hope it’s enough. If it’s not, it’s ok – it’s only my first season, so I still have plenty of time.”
In contrast, 37 year old Butterfield is in a hurry to return to The European Tour next season, when he again plans to sell shares in himself to the same investors who have reaped the rewards of a season which has so far yielded €107,438 in prize money.
He said: “That was probably my best round of 70 of the season. I probably only hit 10 or 12 greens all day, but I chipped and putted particularly well, which you have to round here. My playing partner Rhys Davies has a good short game, but he had a double hit at the 14th hole, which shows you how tough the rough is in places.
“The Tour card’s already secured, but hopefully I can finish the season on a high. I’ve just had a new bathroom fitted and also bought a new car, so I need a decent week to pay for them! I told myself at the start of the season that if I made enough money to afford a new car I’d treat myself, so that’s what I’ve done. I haven’t worked out exactly how much, but the guys who invested in me at the start of the year are also going to get a nice dividend back, so everyone’s happy. The plan’s to do it again next season, and I’m really looking forward to getting back out there again.”