A career first of two eagles in the same round enabled Jeff Winther to make a late charge into a share of first place alongside former Amateur Champion Garrick Porteous and in-form Frenchman Edouard Espana on the opening day of the inaugural Azerbaijan Golf Challenge Open.
Winther, playing his first season on the Challenge Tour after graduating from the Nordic League last year, kept the bogeys off his card in a seven under par round of 65 at a sun-kissed National Azerbaijan Golf Club, which is the country’s first – and so far only – 18-hole golf course.
Starting on the tenth tee, the Dane made his first gain of the day on the par three 13th before notching his first eagle with a chip-in two holes later.
He had to wait until the second hole for his next move up the leaderboard, but it was a significant one as a precise approach to six feet yielded a second eagle of the day and a career first for Winther.
The 26 year old said: “I told a few of the Danes last week that I’d never made two eagles in a round before, so it was good to lose my virginity today! And it was also good that I didn’t make any bogeys, because I’ve been playing elevator golf recently, following a birdie with a bogey.
“So today was a very good day, especially as the course is playing really firm. It can easily catch you out, so you have to concentrate very hard on every shot. With the greens so hard, controlling the distance with your second shots can be very tough so sometimes you have to just say your prayers and hope for the best.”
Porteous’ performance marked a dramatic return to form for the Englishman, who has missed four cuts in five appearances on the Challenge Tour so far this season.
But a fast start in Quba, where he followed up an opening birdie with an eagle at the par five second hole courtesy of a huge drive and a wedge to eight feet, saw the confidence come flooding back.
Porteous said: “I haven’t made as good a start as I would’ve liked in my pro career, but it’s all a learning experience. I’ve just got to keep working hard and find a bit more consistency, because I’ve been playing well in patches but not managing to put four decent rounds together. Hopefully that changes this week.”
In contrast to Porteous’ mixed fortunes, Espana has enjoyed a golden spell of late, notching his second top six finish of the season on home soil last week to climb to 11th place in the Challenge Tour Rankings.
Espana is capable of feats of low scoring – as proved by his opening round of 62 in the Qualifying School Final Stage last year – and the 24 year old again sparkled in the ‘Land of Fire’, hitting all 18 greens in regulation and making eight birdies.
The Challenge Tour rookie said: “I didn’t think a 65 was possible on this course, but I played really well today. My confidence is high after some good results in recent weeks, so I tried to approach this tournament with exactly the same routine and attitude – and it worked out well.
“I’ve played a lot of golf already this season, so I’m taking two weeks off after this tournament and I’ll spend it relaxing on the beach. It would obviously be nice to go into my holiday with another good result, so hopefully my run can continue for the rest of the week.”
Rankings leader Andrew Johnston is also planning to take a break next week, and if he were to sign off with his third victory of the season – and his second in successive weeks – then the next time he tees up would be on The European Tour.
With two victories and a brace of top ten finishes in his last four tournaments, the burly Englishman is undoubtedly the form horse in this week’s 156-man field; and he stated his intention to take home the lion’s share of the €300,000 prize fund with a bogey-free round of 66 which moved him into a share of fourth place on six under par alongside his compatriot Ben Evans.
Johnston said: “I drove the ball really well today and managed to take advantage of the par fives, so that was the key to another low score. I didn’t miss anything from eight feet and in, so it was a very solid all-round performance.”
Evans matched Johnston’s round of 66 courtesy of eight birdies and two bogeys. Having missed eight cuts in his last ten outings, the performance signalled a welcome return to form for Evans, who finished with a flourish with back to back gains from the eighth hole.
Three-time European Tour champion Johan Edfors of Sweden shares sixth place with Frenchman Baptiste Chapellan and Dutchman Tim Sluiter after all three opened their accounts with rounds of 67.