Christophe Brazillier (Getty Images)
A stunning back nine of 31, capped by a birdie-eagle finish, saw Frenchman Christophe Brazillier surge to the top of the leaderboard on the opening day of the money-spinning Kazakhstan Open.
Brazillier, currently languishing in 100th place in the Rankings and with a highest finish of tied sixth at the 2007 Credit Suisse Challenge, outshone the Challenge Tour’s leading lights by compiling a stunning eight under par round of 64.
That saw the Frenchman finish day one of the €400,000 event with a one stroke lead over Sweden’s Magnus A Carlsson – who came home in 29 – and in-form Australian Daniel Gaunt.
After covering the first four holes in level par at Zhailjau Golf Resort in Almaty, Kazakhstan, there was little sign of the pyrotechnics Brazillier would produce.
But six birdies in his next 13 holes, followed by a ten-foot eagle putt on the final green, saw Brazillier shoot his lowest ever round to par.
He said: “It was a great way to finish, with a putt on the last hole for an eagle. It’s probably been quite a long time since I finished with three threes! I putted very well today, and my irons were also very good. I hit 17 greens out of 18 today so I gave myself lots of chances, and luckily I managed to take quite a few of them.
“The course is in great condition again, although it’s probably playing a little bit easier than last year, because the rough isn’t so thick. I played quite well last year and finished about 25th, but I need to play even better this year because I’m down in 100th in the Rankings. So I need a good week, and I’ve got off to a very good start. I haven’t played very well this season – I started quite well, but in the middle of the season I had a few bad results. Hopefully I can play better this week and then for the rest of the season.”
Carlsson’s campaign has been an equally mixed affair, with two top ten finishes offset by five missed cuts.
The Swede’s outward nine was a steady rather than spectacular affair, but his round ignited after the turn with seven unanswered birdies.
The 29 year old, whose sole Challenge Tour victory came at the 2007 Challenge of Ireland, said: “I had a great back nine, which is actually the front nine. On my front nine I didn’t hit my approach shots close enough, so I was normally putting for pars instead of birdies. But then I holed a three metre putt on the first, and that really got my round going. It helped playing with Marius [Thorp], because he was making a lot of birdies so I felt that I had to as well.
“The front nine is probably a little easier to pick up shots on than the back nine, where there are some long holes and the par fives are probably trickier. But the whole course is in great shape – it’s probably the best we’ve played on the Challenge Tour so far this season. I’ve played the other course but it’s my first time playing this course, and I’ve been really impressed with it.
“Of course you enjoy the course more when you’re playing well. My season has been a little bit up and down, but I’m working hard on my game and it seems to be turning around. If I can have a good week here and then another one in Russia next week, hopefully I can start climbing up the Rankings and into the top 20.”
That is also the goal for Gaunt, who currently sits in 28th place but is on course to improve his position in the Rankings after notching seven birdies in a flawless display of golf.
Since his victory at the English Challenge 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.”
Another man currently in fine fettle is Italian Federico Colombo, who shares fourth place on six under par with Finland’s Annti Ahokas, Sweden’s Pelle Edberg and Norwegian Marius Thorp.
Colombo, 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.
He 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.”
Like Colombo, both Edberg and Thorp covered the front nine in 32 and the back nine in 34, whereas Ahokas reached the turn in 36 before flying home in just 30 strokes.