Daniel Gaunt (Getty Images)
An immaculate round of 65 saw in-form Australian Daniel Gaunt grab the clubhouse lead on the opening morning of the Kazakhstan Open, the most lucrative regular event on the Challenge Tour Schedule.
After notching seven birdies in a flawless display of golf at Zhailjau Golf Resort in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the English Challenge champion currently leads by one stroke from Italian Federico Colombo, who also kept the bogeys off his card in a round of 66.
Since his victory in Essex in July, which secured him an instant promotion from the EuroPro Tour to the Challenge Tour, the man from Melbourne has finished inside the top 30 in every event in which he has teed up, with last week’s 12th place finish in Strasbourg his joint best performance.
Gaunt’s round of 65 continued his run of fast starts – incredibly, he is now an aggregate of 30 under par for his opening six rounds on the Challenge Tour this season, with a 74 on the opening day of the rain-affected SWALEC Wales Challenge the only occasion he has failed to break par.
He said: “It was a very good day. I got off to a pretty decent start, which always helps, and managed to carry the momentum through the rest of the round. I couldn’t really fault my play today – my playing partner Fredrik [Henge] asked me if I’d missed a shot all day and I couldn’t really remember any, though I’m sure there were one or two. But there’s no used getting carried away – being at the top of the board on Sunday is when it really matters. I’m in a good position, and I’m playing well. But I’ve got off to good starts in other weeks without managing to see it through.
“Maybe I was putting a bit too much pressure on myself trying to get into the top 20 of the Rankings. So I’m still learning how to finish tournaments off – I know I’ve done it once, but you’ve got to keep doing it if you’re going to make it in this game. I just hope I can see it out here this week. It’s my first time here, and it’s a fantastic place to play golf.
“The course is in great shape, and you have to be on top of your game to go low. The rough’s quite thick in places, but that’s the way it should be for the most important event on the Challenge Tour. You want the best player to win, and this course should guarantee that. They’ve done a fantastic job in getting it up to scratch, and I’m already looking forward to getting out there again tomorrow.”
Like Gaunt Colombo is currently in fine fettle, with top 20 finishes in his last two events. The Italian, who only found out he was in the field for the €400,000 event last Thursday, is bidding to emulate his friend and compatriot Edoardo Molinari, who captured the second of three Challenge Tour titles in a record-breaking season at Zhailjau Golf Resort 12 months ago.
Colombo said: “I was thinking about Edoardo on my way round today. I often practice and play with him during the winter in Turin, because we have the same coach back home in Italy. He’s a really good guy and a great player, so I’m doing my best to follow him. What he’s done this season is just unbelievable – every week he seems to be up near the top of the leaderboard. He’s been a real inspiration, not only for Italian golfers but also for everybody on the Challenge Tour. He was playing here last year, and now look where he is – playing The Ryder Cup and in the top 15 in the World Ranking. It’s just incredible.”
Julio Zapata’s finish was also nothing less than incredible, with five successive birdies moving him from level par to five under and into a share of third place alongside Sweden’s Klas Eriksson, Italian Lorenzo Gagli and Australian Wade Ormsby.
The ultra-consistent Zapata, who started his round on the tenth hole, went out in 36, but came home in just 31 strokes.
That was one better than Ormsby, who birdied his final three holes – including a chip-in on the ninth hole, his last – to record an opening 67, the joint lowest round of his season, for the second successive week.
He said: “I made all the putts I had to today, especially on my back nine, which is the front nine. It’s probably the easier of the two nines, and I took full advantage. I don’t think I missed anything from inside ten feet, and then chipped in at the last, which was a bit of a bonus. I didn’t think the course would necessarily suit my game when I played the practice round, but I do drive it fairly straight so I knew that if I kept it in play, I could do well. There are more chances than you think out there, and fortunately I managed to take most of them. I’ve probably played my best golf of the year in the last month or so, so I came here with pretty high expectations.”
In contrast, Eriksson arrived in Kazakhstan on the back of a wretched run of recent results which has seen him miss the cut in his last six events.
By his own admission the Swede has struggled to recover from the disappointment of losing his European Tour card last season, when he finished 142nd in The Race to Dubai. But he showed signs of a return to form with six birdies and a solitary bogey in an encouraging round of 67.
Eriksson said: “I was very focused today, and hit a lot of good shots – probably as many as I have done all year! Unfortunately I hardly made any putts, but I’ve still got to be happy with a round of 67 after the way I’ve been playing. And at least I’m starting to enjoy my golf again, because I was struggling a little for motivation at the start of the season. I played really well last season, and still ended up losing my card. But today was much more like it, and it helps when you’re playing on such a great course. You have to be able to shape the ball both ways – there’s no use just slugging it off the tee – and you need to hit good shots in order to be able to make birdies. They could easily host a European Tour event here – the course is that good.”