Manny Villegas delighted the home fans at the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Classic as a four under par round of 68 landed the Colombian a joint overnight lead alongside Englishman Daniel Brooks after the opening round at Country Club de Barranquilla, outside Barranquilla on the country’s Caribbean coast.
Villegas, who is sponsored by the tournament hosts Pacific Rubiales and is the brother of US PGA Tour star Camilo, was on superb form as he made light of the windy conditions to card five birdies and just a single bogey.
Having teed off on the 10th, the Colombian got off to a perfect start with back to back birdies on the 10th and 11th before a three-putt and bogey knocked him back on the 15th.
He bounced straight back from that setback though, with a birdie three at the far four 16th to reach the turn in two under par. A flawless back nine, with birdies at the second and fourth, saw him home in 34 and the 27 year old was delighted with his day’s work.“I played quite nicely,” he said, “The wind is blowing, it’s not whipping as much as yesterday but I just kept it in play all day, I hit a lot of good drives. It almost seemed easy even if it wasn’t, but I was just hitting it nicely.
“I was hitting it surprisingly close, I got off to a good start and I didn’t make that many mistakes - one bogey which was a three-putt at 15 - so I hit a lot of greens and kept them on the right sides and played pretty smart.”
Villegas now resides in Florida but, while he has been delighted to return to his home country for the Challenge Tour event, he is certainly in no relaxed mood and is aware of the pressures surrounding him this week.
“I think it’s the opposite of feeling relaxed,” he admitted. “There’s quite a bit of pressure. Everybody’s excited and they want you to play well and everybody thinks you’re going to win easily but it doesn’t work that way. It’s not easy, there’s a bit of pressure to win at home. Obviously it’s nice that I’ve been here and know the course and I know my way around it.”
He was joined at the top by Brooks, whose round was a little less steady but equally impressive as he cruised the front nine with three birdies, at the third, fourth and sixth, taking him to the turn in three under par.
He moved to the outright lead on five under thanks to back-to-back birdies at the 10th and 11th but he followed that up with a double bogey at the par four 12th before another dropped shot at the 16th was followed by two more birdies at the 17th and 18th.
On his first start of the season, the 25 year old was encouraged after a season which ended in disappointment last year when he finished just two places shy of the Challenge Tour top 45 and a place in the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.
“My iron play was very steady today and I holed out well from ten foot and shorter today so I’m really happy, he said. “The wind wasn’t too bad to start with but it picked up on the back nine. Generally, I play quite well with the wind so that helped me.
“I got up to 21st in the rankings last year but it gradually went so that was disappointing really, but I’ve been playing well recently so hopefully I can do better this year. It’s nice to get back out there and hopefully I can do the same again tomorrow, just keep it in play and take it as it comes.”
Brooks’ compatriot Matt Haines was a shot further back alongside Argentinian Sebastian L Saavedra in tied third place. Haines, who won the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final on the way to a second placed finish in the 2010 Challenge Tour rankings, had a stupendous back nine, which included four birdies and no bogeys, to thank for his round of 69, having teed off on the 10th hole.
“I didn’t think that I actually played that great,” he said, “I just hit it in the right spots and got up and down when I needed to. When it’s that windy it’s about course management really and I took all of my chances and played the back nine in four under so it was a good finish.”
Espen Kofstad of Norway, Portugal’s José-Filipe Lima, Lasse Jensen of Denmark and Argentina’s Paulo Pinto were all tied fifth on two under par.
Earlier in the day, Nick Dougherty had laid down an early marker on his Challenge Tour debut, and return to action after a torrid season in 2011, with a one under par 71 which earned him an early clubhouse lead and left him tied ninth by the end of the day’s play.
In strong winds, the three-time European Tour winner carded four birdies in his first competitive round of 2012.
Dougherty’s career has been a struggle of late, making just one cut in 34 events on The European Tour last year, but the 28 year old had a spring in step after his first day on the Challenge Tour and believes that the change in scenery has rejuvenated him.
“My manager Chubby (Chandler) said to me this week that it’s basically like I’m starting my career all over again and it does feel like that,” said Dougherty, “I’m basically starting from scratch because of how it’s all gone in recent years so it’s exciting and I really enjoyed it today.“I played great out there, I’m really happy with how it went. Obviously I wasn’t expecting an easy time on my return but I certainly wasn’t expecting what I had out there! It’s really tough with the wind but you just have to hang in there and be patient and I think I did that really well today.”
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