Sweden’s Peter Gustafsson went some way towards erasing some of the heartache he has endured in recent years by moving into a share of the lead on the opening day of the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, which marks the climax of the 2010 Challenge Tour season.
Gustafsson has twice missed out on securing his European Tour card by a single place in the Challenge Tour Rankings, finishing the year in 16th place in 2004 – when only the top 15 earned promotion – and then 21st 12 months ago.
But the Swede’s five under par round of 66 in benign conditions at the stunning San Domenico Golf in Puglia, Italy, was good enough to climb to the top of the leaderboard alongside England’s Steven Tiley and Austrian Bernd Wiesberger.
With three rounds of the €300,000 event remaining much can still change, but if Gustafsson continues his fine form he stands every chance of jumping from his current Ranking position of 35th and into the all-important top 20.
Gustafsson, who holed his bunker shot for a birdie on the fourth hole, said: “I finished third in the Italian Open so Italy’s been pretty good to me so far this year, and I’d like to keep that run going for one more week if possible. Conditions today were pretty good, and if you can play the tricky holes well then you can take advantage on some of the easier holes. My putting today was the key to my score – I putted better than I have done for a very long time. I only had 25 putts, so any time you do that you’re likely to have a good day. I holed a few nice putts in practice yesterday, and that continued today. My confidence was high and I could read most of the putts – and not only that, they went where I wanted them to go.
“This week I haven’t really got anything to lose – the guys just inside the top 20, like I was last year, have got everything to lose. That’s the way it is. But we all have to remember that we’re very fortunate to do what we do so it’s important to enjoy this week as much as you can, though obviously that’s not always possible! I haven’t always enjoyed it in the past, but I only had myself to blame really. If I’d played a bit better, I would’ve secured my card. But everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t the best two days of my life when I missed out by one, but people have had far worse days than me.”
Like Gustafsson, Tiley has also adopted a relaxed approach as he seeks the top three finish which would in all probability see him climb the necessary six places from his current Ranking position of 26th.
The 28 year old, whose previous claims to fame were his victory in last year’s Egyptian Open and an opening round of 66 at this year’s Open Championship, felt right at home on the 7,031 yards, par 71 links layout, which was designed by European Golf Design, having grown up playing similar courses at home in his native Kent.
Tiley, whose tap-in birdie at the last was one of five gains, said: “I hit it pretty straight off the tee today, though the fairways are fairly generous in some places. That’s my game, short and straight, and today it served me well. It’s my first Grand Final, and I’m trying to enjoy it – I suppose you always enjoy an event more if you’re playing well. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a fun week because it’s quite stressful, but it’s a good week and I enjoy playing this course.
“When my caddie got here he texted me to say it’s just like Deal, which I play on back home in Kent. I didn’t believe him, but it is very similar in many ways – especially the holes next to the seas. So you have to hit similar shots, and play the course in a similar way. The only real difference is that there’s sunshine here in late October, which you definitely wouldn’t get back at home!”
Whilst Tiley and Gustafsson strive to climb into the top 20 of the Rankings, Wiesberger can afford to relax, safe in the knowledge that a return to The European Tour has long since been sewn up after two victories in France this season.
The big-hitting Austrian’s win in Toulouse was secured in windy conditions not dissimilar to those found at San Domenico Golf, on the Adriatic Coast, where he has a decent record having finished in the top 15 on his only previous appearance in 2007.
Wiesberger said: “It’s strange – I putted really well, and yet my only two bogeys came from three putts. But I also drove the ball really well, especially down the stretch. I got off to a great start with birdies at the second, third and fourth, and just carried it on from there. It helps that my card’s virtually secured already – it’s not absolutely guaranteed that I’ll finish in the top ten, but I’m almost there.
“So I can relax and enjoy it a little bit more than some of the guys here this week. I also started with a 66 when I was last here two years ago and wasn’t able to see it through, but hopefully I can build on it this year and maybe win the tournament. It would be a great finish to the season, and might mean I win the Rankings. But I don’t expect Alvaro [Velasco] to have a bad week so it’s not something I’m really thinking about.”
Rankings leader Velasco endured an indifferent day, with two bogeys and a double at the 16th hole blighting his one over par round of 72.
But his compatriot Carlos de Moral endured better fortunes after signing for a flawless round of 67 which saw him take a share of fourth place alongside Australian Daniel Gaunt.
The duo have each won once on the Challenge Tour this season and both are currently inside the top 20, with English Challenge champion Gaunt in 12th, seven places higher than Del Moral.
The Spaniard’s need is therefore the greater, though he is doing his damnedest to ignore the Rankings and just concentrate on his own game.
He said: “I’m just trying to take it step by step and shot by shot. This week that’s more important than ever. It’s my second time here – the last time, in 2007, I played horribly, but I’m a much better player now. There’s just no comparison – last time I couldn’t find a fairway, whereas now the game feels much easier. So I’m happy with my game, but you can lose your form as quickly as finding it. This week is just about keeping going and concentrating fully. Since my win in Russia I feel much stronger mentally, but my game still needs to improve. Hopefully it’s good enough to get me through the week, then I can work hard over the winter and get ready for next season – wherever that may be!”
Gaunt is all but assured of a place in The 2011 Race to Dubai, but he has set his sights on a place in the top ten of the Rankings, in order to ensure as many starts as possible next season.
The man from Melbourne, who now resides in London, opened with a double bogey at the tough opening hole courtesy of a wayward approach shot, but rallied impressively with six birdies – including one from a foot on the last.
He said: “The opening hole’s really tough – it’s almost playing like a par five into the wind, so even though I didn’t play it well, I felt I’d only lost one shot on most of the field. There are still 71 holes to go so you can’t afford to get down or lose your concentration, and luckily I got one straight back with a birdie on the second. After that I hit some good shots, especially on the back nine, which I played very well. I’ve been brought up playing in the wind, so the sort of tough course we’ve got here, where you have to hit quality shots to make birdie, suits my game.
“After my win I lost my swing a bit, but over the last month or so I’ve found it again and my game feels that much sharper. I’ve been playing well, and if I can keep it going for the next three days, it should stand me in good stead. I haven’t allowed myself to think about next season – I’ll think about that come Saturday night. I’ve virtually guaranteed myself a place in the top 20, but my goal this week is to climb into the top ten. It’s a big ask, but I’ve won once already so I know I’m good enough to compete out here on the Challenge Tour.”
American Christopher Ryan Baker and Sweden’s Pelle Edberg share sixth place on three under par after both men posted four birdies and a solitary bogey in their respective rounds of 68.