South African George Coetzee fired a five under par 66 in tricky conditions to lead the way in the first round of the Saint-Omer Open presented by Neuflize OBC.
The 24 year old finished with three consecutive birdies at Aa Saint Omer Golf Club to lie two shots ahead of Australian Matthew Zions , Norway’s Eirik Tage Johansen, Italian Andrea Perrino, Benoit Teilleria of France and Dane Thomas Norret.
Coetzee, whose early tee time meant he avoided the worst of the wet, windy weather which blighted the northern France venue for much of the day, attributed his score to some fine form on the greens.
“The wind is starting to pick up now but it wasn’t that bad this morning,” he said. “I putted pretty well, that’s the reason for my score. It’s not easy to get the ball on the green or to keep it there if you do get it on the green. But I played well over the last three holes and it’s a good start.
“I just kept trying to make pars, I didn’t really care about my score. I bogeyed the 13th (his fourth hole, having teed off from the tenth) and thought to myself ‘I can get really mad now or I can just keep trying to make pars’. You just have to keep plugging away and not try to hit it off the planet.”
The Qualifying School graduate has not won on The European Tour, but triumphed in the Sunshine Tour’s Telkom PGA Championship earlier this year.
“When I went home for that week I started swinging it better and to win was great,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I missed the cut in the Wales Open two weeks ago because I felt so good about my game. It will come, I’ve just got to stay patient.”
Norret, who this season returned to the game after a six-year break, was the only player of the day not to have a bogey on his card.
“I hit a lot of good shots today, and whenever I didn’t hit a good shot I managed to save par well,” said the 37 year old, who has won once on the Challenge Tour, at the 2002 Volvo Finnish Open. “I’ve been playing well and have felt like this sort of round has been coming.
“It was a nice way to finish with that putt to save par at the last. It was nice to keep the bogeys off the card. I’ve been doing a lot of good things, but I just need to finish it off.
“I played on Tour for five years in the early 2000s. Then I got married and we had three children, and when you don’t make a lot of money on the Challenge Tour it is hard. So I quit for a while and managed some younger players.
“One of them, a girl, is playing on the Ladies European Tour now so it’s nice to see young players that I may have influenced doing well. Being away from the game made me realise there are more important things in life, but hopefully my decision to come back to golf is a good one.”
Like Coetzee, Zions and Johansen both birdied three in a row from the seventh.
Zions said: “It’s a good score considering the start I made. I three-putted the first and third to be two over after three. But I think I only missed one green out there all day and I made some very good saves, which was nice as my putter has been pretty cold the last few weeks. There are some tough pins out there and when it’s this windy there aren’t any easy pins.
“You have to show this course a lot of respect. And you have to take advantage of the par fives because other birdie chances are few and far between. The winning score is usually in single figures.”
Johansen added: “I got it going on the back nine. I made some good putts and I had a strong finish. I had about a four-metre putt for eagle on the last (the ninth) but just missed it. The approach wasn’t quite what my caddie and I decided. We were trying to play safe but it ended up going a little bit left and straight at the pin, but nobody needs to know that!
“This course is sneaky. You can hit it pin high and the ball ends up rolling off the green. There are so many small hills and bumps. Patience is a good thing here. It’s frustrating when you hit a good shot into a green and it rolls ten metres from its pitch mark and off the green, but I came back well from it.”