Despite suffering from flu and being distressed by the plane crash in Russia which killed a number of his ice hockey heroes, Finland’s Antti Ahokas compiled the lowest round of a testing Challenge Tour campaign with a 66 on the opening day of the lucrative Kazakhstan Open.
Ahokas endured a sleepless night, having heard the news of the accident which killed 36 players and officials from the major league team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, but made light of his lethargy to fire seven birdies and a solitary bogey to set the pace on six under par, one stroke clear of England’s Chris Lloyd and Irishman Simon Thornton.
The flying Finn, currently languishing in 151st place in the Challenge Tour Rankings, is in need of a high finish at the €400,000 event if he is to stand any chance of securing a return to The European Tour, and he got off to the perfect start with two birdies in his opening three holes at the stunning Nurtau Golf Club.
After dropping his only shot of the day at the 13th hole, where he found the long rough, Ahokas hit back with another birdie on the 17th hole, and scorched home after the turn in just 32 shots in a display of golf which was as hot as the weather in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s second largest city.
The two-time Challenge Tour champion said: “The biggest challenge today was trying to stay cool, because it was 29 degrees in the shade. I’ve had the flu for the last two weeks and I didn’t feel well when I woke up this morning, but I just freed my mind, went out there and played golf, and enjoyed myself in the end.
“It was very difficult after what happened in Russia last night, because I’m a huge ice hockey fan and a lot of my idols were killed in the crash. So it was an emotional night and today golf didn’t feel too important, but of course I’m happy with a 66 because it’s been a difficult season. I’ve really struggled this year, so this was by far my best competitive round of the season. I got a couple of good breaks, because the rough is really thick and I got some good lies, but maybe after the season I’ve had it’s about time I got a bit of luck.”
In contrast, Lloyd suffered some ill fortune when his caddie accidentally stepped on his ball on the 17th hole, incurring a one-stroke penalty.
But the 19 year old still managed to salvage par, and after posting a brace of eagles on his inward nine, he signed for a round of 67 to finish on five under par.
Following a bright start to his debut season, Lloyd has slipped outside the top 20 of the Rankings after struggling with his game in recent weeks.
But with €64,000 on offer to the winner this week, a top five finish would all but secure the boy from Bristol a European Tour card for the first time.
He said: “It’s a big week, and I’m delighted to bounce back to a bit of form, because I’ve struggled with my game lately. I’ve dropped to 21st place so I knew I needed a big week to get back into the top 20, and a round of 67 is a pretty good start.
“The two eagles were the highlight, especially the fourth, because my round wasn’t really going anywhere until that point. I didn’t play very well on my front nine, but I scrambled well – especially the first four holes, where I didn’t find a green in regulation, but somehow still managed to make four pars.
“I stayed very patient and managed to shoot one under par for my front nine, even though my play probably didn’t deserve it. But then I rolled in a 35-footer for eagle on the fourth, and all of a sudden I was off and running. I slowed my swing down a bit and got into a nice rhythm, and played really well coming in.
“I would’ve taken five under at the start of the day without a shadow of a doubt, and I suppose it’s a good sign that I feel I haven’t really played very well, yet I’ve still shot a 67. Level par might’ve been a more accurate reflection of my play, especially on my front nine, but there have been plenty of times this season where I’ve walked off with a 72 and felt I deserved a 67, so maybe today was payback time!”
Thornton and his fellow Irishman Colm Moriarty were the only two players in the field to keep bogeys off their cards, posting respective rounds of 67 and 68.
The Kazakhstan Open has been kind to Thornton, who finished tied 21st on his only previous visit to the event, and the 34 year old – who has divided his time between The European and Challenge Tours this term – is likely to concentrate his focus predominantly on the Challenge Tour for the remainder of the season should he walk away with a large share of the €400,000 prize fund.
Thornton said: “I played really well – much better than I had in the practice round. I was very straight off the tee, which you need to be round here, because the rough is so penal. The extra length you get out here and the firm fairways help me a lot, because instead of long or mid-irons I’ve got shorter irons into the greens for my approach shots. So I was putting it pretty close, and also managed to hole my fair share of putts.
“It’s difficult to say no to the money on offer on The European Tour, but if I have a good week here the chances are I’ll stick to the Challenge Tour, especially as my category on the main Tour means I’m probably only going to get into three more events, so that might make my mind up for me. I’ll probably have a much better idea of my probable playing schedule come Sunday night.”
Moriarty was joined on four under par by the English trio of Matthew Baldwin, Tommy Fleetwood and Andrew Johnston, South African Tyrone Ferreira, Argentina’s Cesar Monasterio and Spaniard Pedro Oriol.