In brutally tough conditions which saw all bar one of the 45-man field shoot over par, England’s Steven Tiley and Austrian Bernd Wiesberger maintained their joint lead on day two of the season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.
Two over par rounds of 73 saw the leading duo fall back to three under par, one stroke ahead of joint overnight leader Peter Gustafsson of Sweden, who signed for a round of 74 moments after taking three putts from eight feet on the 18th green.
But undoubtedly the star of the show was Frenchman Charles-Edouard Russo, who defied gusting winds of up to 30mph to shoot a superb round of 68 which featured just one bogey – three fewer than anyone else managed at San Domenico Golf in Puglia, southern Italy.
Tiley, bidding to climb the crucial six places needed to gatecrash the top 20, turned in 38 after dropping shots at the long first – which only saw 19 pars and not a single birdie all day – and the ninth. But he came home in level par after birdies at the 13th and 18th holes cancelled out bogeys at the 14th and 16th.
The 28 year old from Kent said: “It’s always nice to finish your round with a birdie – I also birdied the last on the first day, so hopefully that’s a good sign for the next two days. It’s so tough out there – the wind is incredibly strong. You didn’t really need a yardage book out there, because you never how much the wind was going to help or hinder you.
“It was also really tough on the greens – people don’t understand how much the wind affects your putting. Not only does it knock the ball off line, but it also affects your set-up and your stance. So it was a difficult day, but I’ve probably got more experience playing in these kind of conditions than some of the other guys. I’ve played in wind like this before and worse, but at least here the greens are quite receptive.
“Apparently the forecast is better for the next two days, so I might not have such an advantage. But I’m playing well, so I fancy my chances. I obviously can’t affect what other people shoot, but hopefully I can put some pressure on the guys above me in the Rankings. I’ve got very little to lose, and everything to gain.”
The same is largely true of Wiesberger, whose place in the top ten of the Rankings is already assured after two victories this term.
Should he make it a third and walk away with the €51,500 first prize money, the big-hitting Austrian would stand a better than even chance of winning the Rankings at the expense of Spaniard Alvaro Velasco, who toiled to a round of 74.
But Wiesberger, who despite his prodigious hitting still came up some 30 yards short of the first green in two, is playing down his chances of succeeding Italian Edoardo Molinari as the Number One graduate.
The man from Vienna, who rescued his round with a two under par back nine of 35, said: “After missing a short par putt on the first, I really struggled at the start of my round to get any early momentum going. I ended up turning in four over par, but I didn’t feel I had played that badly, considering the conditions.
“On the tenth tee I re-focused and set myself the target of coming home in level par, and in the end I went two better. So even though I shot a 73 I walked off the 18th green feeling pretty happy, because I’m still leading the tournament.
“In those conditions, I could’ve easily played my way out of the tournament. In the group in front of us, Carlos del Moral hit a driver off the first tee and then hit his driver again off the fairway without even waiting for the group ahead to clear the green, because he knew he would never reach. So that just goes to show you how strong the wind was. But it was the same for everyone, so nobody could have any complaints.
“We’ve only got two days left of the season now, so I’m just going to give it everything. I’m not really thinking of winning the Rankings – I’m just trying to win the tournament, and if I manage that and it only takes me up to second place, then I’ll still be very happy with that.”
Victory or even second place for Gustafsson would secure him the prize of a return to European Tour duty, and the experienced Swede – who swapped his trademark sun hat for a more suitable bobble hat – was in relaxed mode despite an ugly finish to his round.
He said: “Today the main thing was just to try to stay patient, stay in the tournament and not get too frustrated, because on nearly every hole par was a good score today. The conditions are the one thing you can’t control, so you just have to get on with it. It’s important to try to stay positive – there’s no point feeling sorry for yourself, because if you do then you’re in big trouble. I three putted on the 18th today, but I bet every player had at least one three putt – except maybe Russo.”
The Frenchman notched three birdies in a stupendous display of shotmaking which propelled him from 35th place to a share of fourth alongside American Christopher Ryan Baker, Australian Daniel Gaunt and England’s Matt Haines.
Russo, currently 24th in the Rankings, reaped the rewards of a day on the range with his coach Benoit Ducoulombier, who also coaches his compatriot Grégory Havret.
He said: “It was so windy and so cold – I’m not used to playing in those conditions! But I spent a long time with Benoit on the practice range, and he showed me what I needed to do to play better in windy conditions. We worked on the adjustments I’d need to make to my trajectory, and it obviously worked pretty well today! I also putted very well, which always helps. I switched to a different putter three weeks ago, and my putting is now getting better all the time. Hopefully the putts keep dropping and I can climb into the top 20, but if not I will go to the Qualifying School Final and try my luck there.”
Haines missed a short birdie putt on the last hole but was still satisfied with his round of 72, as was Gaunt with his topsy-turvy round of 74.
For the second day running the Australian opened with a double bogey, and the same fate befell him at the 11th hole, where playing partner Baker also ran up a seven.
But he cancelled those blips out with two eagles, at the short third and 17th holes, to stay in contention to land his second Challenge Tour title, and with it a coveted place in the top five of the Rankings.