A blistering burst of birdies on his back nine saw England’s Marcus Higley surge to the head of affairs on day one of the ALLIANZ Golf Open de Lyon on the European Tour Challenge Tour.
After going out in 34 at a sun-soaked Golf du Gouverneur, Higley picked up six shots in five holes after the turn – including an eagle three at the third – to sign for a round of 64, one better than Scotland’s Elliot Saltman and the in-form Swede Oscar Floren.
Having fallen from his bike last week and bruised his ribs Higley’s preparations were restricted to the putting green, and the practice paid off in fine style as he holed putt after putt to record the lowest round of a season which has, by his own admission, so far failed to ignite.
He said: “I played well all day really, but just started holing a few putts after the turn really – that was the difference between the two nines. In the middle of my back nine I started to feel pretty invincible – I thought I was going to hole every putt at that point! I actually missed two fairly short putts on my last two holes – they can’t have been more than about six feet each, so I would’ve expected to have holed at least one of them. But it wasn’t to be, and I holed more than my fair share today, so I certainly can’t complain about the one or two that got away. If I’d been offered a 64 before today’s round, I probably would’ve just about taken it!
“My golf this season’s been pretty average, so hopefully that round might spark it into life. I didn’t actually feel that confident coming into the tournament, because I bruised my rib falling off my bike back home, and haven’t been able to swing a club for a week. I could hardly move for a couple of days after the accident, then it slowly started getting better but I didn’t want to risk it. So all I’ve been able to work on is my putting, and that paid dividends today. Maybe that’s the way forward!”
In contrast Saltman, who finished runner up at the recent Fred Olsen Challenge de España, felt his round of 65 was the worst he could have shot, having missed some very makeable putts.
Had his putter been as hot as the temperatures in Monthieux, near Lyon, Saltman might have held the outright lead. But the Edinburgh native was still pleased with a round which saw him continue an encouraging run of recent results.
He said: “I probably left at least four shots out there, all from within about eight feet, which has probably been a bit of a weakness of mine. But I suppose you can’t hole every putt, so I’ve still got to be very happy with how I’ve played. I’m in pretty good form at the minute, stretching back to my round of 67 on the first day in Morocco. I fell back away a bit over the next three days, but I still took a lot of positives from the week, and managed to carry that into the Spanish event.
“I was disappointed not to win there, but once I’d got over the disappointment I felt pretty proud of how I’d played for three days. If I can keep my form going for the next few days and weeks, it should bode well for the rest of the year. Obviously I’d love to finish in the top 20 of the Rankings and get my European Tour card, but if not then the next best thing would be to get a decent category for next season on the Challenge Tour.”
Another player with his eyes set firmly on the top 20 is Floren, who has three top ten finishes to his name so far this term, including a runner-up at the Turkish Airlines Challenge presented by Carya Golf Club.
After an impressive amateur career at college in the States Floren initially struggled to make the transition to the professional ranks, but a pep talk from his coach last year appears to have had the desired effect.
He explained: “About a year ago now, my coach sat me down and told me he wasn’t very happy with me. He thought I wasn’t focused enough either in my practice or my approach out on the course. After that I made all ten cuts at the end of last year, and carried some of that form and confidence into this year.
“I’m much more organised now with my practice drills and I’m more in control of my thoughts and emotions out on the course. Then when I’ve finished, I leave the course and relax – I don’t just hang around. So I have a lot to thank him for, because what he said was absolutely right – I wasn’t fulfilling my potential.
“He got really angry with me at the time – he said it was the second most angry he’d ever been in his life! He said he was frustrated because I was just wasting my talent, and it was probably the kick up the rear I needed. To know that he believed in me and cared enough to get really angry inspired me to make the most of my talent, which is what I’m trying to do.
“I work really hard on and off the course, and if I keep working hard I know I’m good enough to compete. When I saw him again recently, he told me I was light years ahead of where I was this time last year. I have a bet with my swing coach that I’m going to finish in the top ten of the Rankings this year – if I don’t I have to give up chewing tobacco, and I don’t want to do that!”
Austrian Thomas Feyrsinger, Sweden’s Ake Nilsson and Inder van Weerelt of the Netherlands were three members of a seven-strong group of players to finish on five under par.
The highlight of van Weerelt’s round of 66 was an eagle two at the tenth hole, although the Dutchman – who predicted a 2-0 victory for his country in the World Cup final on Sunday – undid some of his hard work when he bogeyed two of his last three holes.
In contrast, Feyrsinger kept the bogeys off his card in a flawless display of golf, whilst Nilsson dropped just one shot after a three-putt at the 16th hole.
Others with reasons to be cheerful include Frenchman Anthony Snobeck, who notched the second albatross of the 2010 Challenge Tour season at the eighth hole. And the drinks were also on Argentina’s Alan Wagner, who aced the 11th hole.