Alvaro Velasco (Getty Images)
Red-hot Spaniard Alvaro Velasco surged to the head of affairs with a round of 66 on the second morning of the €400,000 Kazakhstan Open at a sun-soaked Zhailjau Golf Resort, in the capital city Almaty.
A dazzling display saw Velasco, currently sixth in the Challenge Tour Rankings and with his return to The European Tour all but assured after one victory and a further three top five finishes so far this season, leap to the top of the leaderboard on 11 under par.
The chasing pack includes Switzerland’s Julien Clément, Sweden’s Peter Gustafsson, Italy’s Andrea Perrino and the English trio of Ben Evans, Charlie Ford – whose round of 64 was the joint lowest of the tournament – and Adam Gee, who all share second place on ten under par.
Velasco opened with a bogey at the tenth hole, but soon cancelled that out with a birdie at the next. Another gain at the 18th hole saw him drop below par for the first time, and he reeled off a further five birdies after the turn to come home in 31.
The Barcelona-born 29 year old, who captured his maiden Challenge Tour title on home soil at the Fred Olsen Challenge de España in June, currently trails Rankings leader Oscar Floren by €27,188; but with €64,000 on offer to the winner this week, victory for Velasco could see him displace the Swede at the top of the tree.
He said: “It was a great day, although it started quite slowly. My round didn’t really start until I birdied the 18th hole, and then after that I played very well. The front nine’s probably two or three shots easier than the back nine, because there are three pars fives which you can reach in two, and the par four eighth which you can reach with your driver. So it’s a little easier, but you still have to play well to score.
“I’m playing well at the moment – I finished second in Strasbourg last week and fifth a few weeks before that. So I’m just trying to keep my focus the same, and hopefully I will have the same results. It’s not so easy to treat this week the same as any other week, because it’s like a Major for us. At the start of the season everybody looks to Kazakhstan as the week where they want to be in good shape, and luckily I feel good and I’m playing well.
“If I keep playing at the same level and finish in the top ten of the Rankings, I’ll be very happy. Maybe if I have a good week here and then another one in Russia next week, I can start thinking about finishing on top of the Rankings. But for now I’m just thinking about the next two days. Hopefully the weather can stay the same, because it was beautiful out there today. I much prefer playing in this kind of weather, because it reminds me of home! And the course is in incredible shape – they’ve done a fantastic job with it.”
Like Velasco, Ford is also sampling his first taste of Zhailjau Golf Resort, and like the Spaniard he also opened his round with a bogey at the tenth hole.
But the youngster from Leicester recalled some words of wisdom from Peter Alliss, the former Tour professional and current commentator on the BBC, as he rattled off seven birdies and an eagle to cover the next 17 holes in nine under par.
Ford, who claimed his maiden professional title at the Turkish Airlines Challenge presented by Carya Golf Club in May, said: “I made a really sloppy bogey from the fairway on the tenth hole, but on the next tee I turned to my caddie and told him that I’d once heard Peter Alliss say on TV that many a great round has started with a bogey. And it turns out he was right! I didn’t make any outrageous putts – the longest was from about 15 feet – but the only two I missed from inside ten feet were on the first and last holes, so my putting was pretty solid all day.”
His compatriot Evans, who currently sits 21 places below Ford in the Rankings in 39th, also enjoyed a profitable day on the greens as he bids to claim his maiden Challenge Tour title.
Evans, whose only dropped shot of the day came at the 17th, said: “Until this week I’ve been struggling with my swing, and although it still wasn’t quite right today, it was much better. The key to my scoring has been my holing out from six feet, which has been very good. Yesterday most of them were for par, but today most of them were for birdies. I didn’t really make the most of the par fives, but other than that I played very well, so I’m pleased.”
In contrast his compatriot Gee was four under par for the part fives, with the highlight of his round of 65 an eagle three at the ninth hole.
The Londoner, in need of a good week to improve on his Ranking position of 57th, said: “I got off to a fast start, like I did on the first day, but the difference this time was that I was able to carry it through for the rest of the round. I hit a couple of really good long iron shots on the back nine, which was very pleasing, and my putting was also very solid – which you would probably expect if you shoot a 65. I haven’t been playing well this season, but I suppose if you were going to have one good week, you’d pick Kazakhstan.”
Ahokas is another in need of an improved performance, with almost €30,000 currently separating him from a coveted place in the top 20 of the Rankings.
The flying Finn arrived at the course drained of energy after a sleepless night caused by an upset stomach, but he showed few signs of any ill effects with a round of 68.
Ahokas said: “I only got about four hours’ sleep last night, so I didn’t feel too great out on the course today. But a round of 68 made me feel much better, so although I’m tired, I’m also happy. My only bad hole was the fifth, but I got a bit unlucky because my ball was up against the lip of the bunker, so it was almost unplayable. Other than that, my game was very solid. My iron game still isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’m driving the ball very well, which is very important on this course.”
Clemént’s flawless round of 66 included four birdies on the front nine and two after the turn, whilst the only blemish in Gustafsson’s round of 67 came at the fourth hole.