Italian Federico Colombo, bidding to emulate his friend and compatriot Edoardo Molinari, will go into the weekend of the money-spinning Kazakhstan Open as the tournament’s joint leader with Australian Daniel Gaunt.
Twelve months ago Molinari walked away with the title after a masterful display, and Colombo is on course to follow in his spike marks after a flawless round of 65 at Zhailjau Golf Resort moved him to 13 under par at the midway stage of the €400,000 event.
That is three strokes lower than his mentor Molinari – though playing conditions in Almaty have been more favourable this year – but Colombo is refusing to get carried away.
Instead, the Italian will draw on his regular sessions with his mental coach in Switzerland in a bid to remain relaxed, as he goes in search of a maiden Challenge Tour title which would secure him a return to The European Tour at the first time of asking.
He said: “Like yesterday, I played very solid golf all day. I hardly missed a fairway all day, and only had two par putts from outside five feet. I didn’t take any notice of the leaderboards today, and I’m going to try to do the same over the weekend – though it won’t be so easy! I’ll probably be under a bit more pressure because I’m playing in the last group, but I’ve been working hard on my mental approach and trying not to get too stressed, and so far it seems to be working.
“I don’t know how I will cope with the expectations, but my confidence is high. I’ve been working with my mental coach in Switzerland, so I guess we’ll find out if it’s working or not! I’ve been seeing him since the start of the season, and it’s going well so far. We’ve worked on just concentrating on the shot I’m about to play, and clearing my mind of everything else. If the shot doesn’t come off, no problem – just make sure the next one does! It’s probably part of the reason for my improvement this year.”
Gaunt, whose 66 was his second successive bogey-free round, has also enjoyed a dramatic upturn in fortunes of late.
Having started the season on the Satellite EuroPro Tour, the man from Melbourne earned promotion to the Challenge Tour courtesy of his victory at the English Challenge, and is now in sight of a place on The European Tour.
But like his co-leader he too is trying to keep calm, having played himself into contention in previous weeks, only to fall away over the final two days.
Gaunt said: “I was struggling a bit out there in the early part of my round, but managed to keep it going and then finished on a real high with a birdie and an eagle. Maybe I was trying to force matters early on, so I decided to relax a bit more and it seemed to do the trick. I found something in my swing over the last five or six holes today, and that gives me a lot more confidence going into the weekend. I’m just going to go out there and try to have some fun. Hopefully the weather stays the same, because it’s been a real joy playing out there. It’s obviously an important weekend, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Colombo and Gaunt currently lead by two strokes from Scotland’s Scott Jamieson and Spaniard Alvaro Velasco, who share third place.
A breathtaking front nine of 29 helped catapult Jamieson 25 places up the leaderboard. The Scot, currently languishing in 71st place in the Challenge Tour Rankings and therefore in need of a strong showing this week, flew out of the blocks with seven birdies – including four on the spin from the sixth hole – to break 30 for the first time in his Challenge Tour career.
He picked up one more shot on the more demanding back nine to finish alongside Velasco on 11 under par.
Jamieson said: “I got off to a great start with birdies at the first and second, then added another one at the fourth and four more from the sixth. At that point, the game felt pretty easy! You’ve got to make your score on the front nine out there – there are definitely more chances because the par fives are all reachable in two, and the par four eighth is also driveable. The two par fives on the back nine aren’t nearly as accessible, but I managed to pick up a birdie on the 14th and then just kept it nice and steady after that.
“It’s my joint lowest round to par on the Challenge Tour – I also shot an eight under par 62 in Poland last year. I wasn’t sure if I’d broken 30 on the Challenge Tour before, but now that I know I haven’t, I’m even more pleased with my day. The scoring’s probably so low because the course is in such great condition, especially the greens, which are absolutely perfect. At the same time if you do miss the fairways in the wrong places you can really come unstuck, because the rough is quite thick on some holes.
“If I keep playing the way I’ve been playing, hopefully I won’t be too far away. It’s obviously a massive weekend, but I’m going to try to enjoy it – and maybe the money will motivate me to do well! I’ve just got to try to stick to the same game plan, because it’s obviously worked for me so far. With the position I’m in at the moment in the Rankings, the most realistic goal for me is to finish in the top 45, to make sure I get into the Grand Final. Anyone who makes the Grand Final has a chance of earning their card, and the worst case scenario is that you go straight to the Qualifying School Final. So that has to be the aim, and a good week here would definitely help.”
Of the morning starters, the biggest move was made by 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.
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.”