Australian Daniel Gaunt continued his fine form by upstaging his more celebrated rivals to establish a two shot lead with a superb round of 64 on the first day of the inaugural English Challenge on the European Challenge Tour.
Gaunt owes his place in the field for the €150,000 event, which marks the Challenge Tour’s return to English soil after a two-year absence, to his position at the head of the EuroPro Tour Order of Merit.
The man from Melbourne has one victory and two runner-up finishes to his name this term, and has virtually already guaranteed himself a place in the top five of the Order of Merit, which will in turn secure him a place on the 2011 Challenge Tour Schedule.
Gaunt, who settled in London with his English wife after moving to England ten years ago, notched eight birdies in a flawless round of golf to set a new course record at the stunning Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf and Spa near Colchester, Essex.
He said: “I got off to a great start, then just carried it on from there. I made a couple of good par saves on the eighth and ninth which kept my momentum going, then got on a bit of a run after the turn. It felt pretty easy out there – I never really got myself into any trouble. My putting today was the key – my longest was probably on the 13th, where I sunk a nice putt from about 20 feet. But other than that, most of them were from inside ten feet.
“I’ve been playing well lately, so I was pretty confident coming into the week. The mental side of my game has improved dramatically this year, and that’s probably been the main reason for the upturn in my results. I’m much calmer these days – I just accept hitting bad shots. We all hit bad shots every now and then – even the best players in the world do – but it’s how you bounce back from them that counts. I just feel like I’m out here to play properly this year, instead of just messing around or complaining – though I haven’t got much to complain about after a round of 64!
“I didn’t expect to win this week necessarily, but that’s obviously what you play the game for. I’m not going to get carried away after leading on the first day – if my name’s still at the top of the leaderboard come Sunday night, perhaps then I’ll get excited. I’ve got experience of having won already this season, so hopefully that’ll stand me in good stead. I’m really looking forward to getting onto the Challenge Tour next year, and maybe if I play well at Q School, hopefully I’ll even bypass that and get straight onto The European Tour. I had a taste of it at the French Open recently, and even though I just missed the cut, I still feel like that’s where I belong.”
The same could be said for amateur starlet Tommy Fleetwood, who seems set for a glittering professional career after making quite a name for himself in the amateur game.
Fleetwood received an invitation to play at the Nordea Scandinavia Masters on The European Tour this week but opted instead to play on the Challenge Tour, and the decision looked an inspired one as he belied his tender years with a sumptuous display of strokeplay to take a share of second place alongside his compatriot Ben Evans, Scotland’s Callum Macaulay and the Spanish duo of Carlos Del Moral and Alvaro Velasco.
A product of the English Golf Union, who are Official Partners to the €150,000 event, the 19 year old from Lancashire is currently England’s leading amateur, and he showed precisely why with a burst of birdies on his back nine to finish on six under par.
After opening with a double bogey on the tenth hole due to a wayward drive, Fleetwood rallied impressively with three birdies to reach the turn in level par.
Gains at the first, second, fourth and sixth holes swiftly followed, and he closed with another two birdies to come home in just 30.
Fleetwood, who was a member of England’s triumphant team at the recent European Amateur Championship, said: “A double at the first obviously wasn’t the ideal start for me! I pulled my tee shot left then went for a shot with my second that might only come off three times out of ten, and unfortunately it failed miserably. But after that things picked up, and on my back nine I could’ve come home in 28, because I missed a couple of makeable birdie putts. But obviously finishing with three threes was a bit of a bonus, especially as they’re not easy holes.
“Probably the most difficult thing out there is judging your distance control, because the ball’s running for miles on the hard fairways. Even when I wasn’t catching my drives it was going about 330 yards, so it makes you feel pretty good! It means you’re using a lot of wedges for your approach shots, so if you’re short game’s working well and you’re putting well, then you’re probably going to make a lot of birdies.
“Even though he didn’t have the best of days it was good playing with Matt [Haines], who I obviously know very well, and also Alessandro Tadini, who won last week. Me and Matt had basically spent the last three years together but hadn’t seen each other for a while, so it was good to catch up. He didn’t have the best of days, but it was still interesting to watch him and see how his game has changed and developed since he turned pro.
“He’s taken to professional life brilliantly, so I can take a lot of encouragement from that. I’m looking at turning pro in August, then I’ll probably take my chances at Qualifying School – unless I can ‘do a Rory’ and earn enough money to get my card through invites! But that’s to worry about another day. All I’m thinking about at the moment is playing well again tomorrow – if I can shoot another 66, then I’ll be in a pretty good position going into the weekend.”
Whilst Fleetwood is making his first Challenge appearance of the season, Macaulay is playing his eighth consecutive tournament.
But the Scot showed few signs of fatigue with a rousing round which included seven birdies – four of which came at the par fives – and a solitary bogey at the testing 11th hole.
He said: “I hardly put a foot wrong, and anytime you manage to keep a five off your card, you know you’ve had a pretty good day. I holed two or three decent par putts at crucial times to keep my momentum going, and then made the most of my birdie chances as and when they came along. It was nice to sink a few putts for a change, because I feel as though I’ve been playing well without getting the rewards for it. I’ve been hitting a lot of greens over the last few weeks, but not scoring as low as I should’ve done. So it’s been frustrating.
“But it helps that the greens here are exactly like the ones I’ve grown up playing on. I raced a few past, but managed to hole them coming back. It’s always nice to shoot a 66, but it’s even better to do it on the first day and put yourself into a decent position. I’ve got a couple of weeks off because we haven’t got any tournaments coming up, so hopefully I can go out with a bang. I’m currently 78th in the Rankings, so I need to move up a few places to get into the Rolex Trophy – that’s one of the main aims of the week.”
Stoke by Nayland's touring professional Jamie Moul recovered from a double bogey at his first hole to shoot a one under par round of 71, the same score as his playing partner and compatriot Gary Wolstenholme, twice a winner of the Amateur Championship.
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