Charlie Saxon continued his fantastic start to 2018 by carding a five under par round of 66 to take a share of the first round lead at the Belt and Road Colourful Yunnan Open.
The American, who is making his European Challenge Tour debut this week, has already won twice on the China Tour this season and arrived at Yulongwan Golf Club knowing he can perform there having finished as a runner-up at the Kunming course in the PGA Tour China Series in 2016.
Despite dropping a shot on the first after an errant tee shot, the 24 year old rallied with birdies at the third, fifth, sixth and ninth to reach the turn in 34 and keep in touch with morning leaders Sunil Jung and Borja Virto, who set the clubhouse target at five under par.
Three further gains over the back nine followed with Saxon tying the lead after holing a tricky 15-foot putt at the par four 15th.
Although he was unable to convert another birdie chance at the 18th – Saxon had hit a stunning approach to five feet from a difficult lie at the corner of a bunker 120 yards from the pin – the American joined England’s Matt Ford, Canada’s Jung and Spain’s Virto at the top of the leaderboard.
One adrift of the leaders are Denmark’s Joachim B Hansen and China’s Xue-wen who both signed for four under par rounds of 67.
One further back is a pack of six players including Sweden’s Sebastian Soderberg, who has continued his good start to the 2018 campaign by following his tied sixth place finish in the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open with a three under par opening 68 today.
“It was a really good day,” said Saxon. “The conditions out there were difficult and it is a tough course – there’s a lot going on around the greens and with the wind picking up that makes it more challenging – so I just came out and tried to play a solid round of golf.
“My Dad always says ‘you can’t win it on the first day but you can shoot yourself out of it’ so I was happy not to shoot myself out of it.
“I did everything well today. The only mistake was hitting it into the hazard on my first hole but after that I didn’t make any.
“China has been really good to me. For some reason I always play my best golf here and I also have good memories of this course after finishing as a runner-up here two years ago. I’m excited for the rest of the week.”
“It reminded me of a few good rounds that I’ve played in the past in the wind,” said Ford. “It was tricky out there trying to judge how much it was going to affect the ball, a few times it caught me out, but I think everyone was struggling with that today.
“It is a lovely course. The conditions are great, although there were a lot of gusts, but it is overall probably one of the best golf courses we will play all year.
“I had a good start – it was great to start with four birdies in a row – but I must have hit it inside ten feet six or seven times today and I made a few putts too, so it was very solid.
“The two first events of the season are very big and I feel that I have played some decent golf so far and I am looking forward to competing regularly again after a long off season.”
“I am really happy,” said Virto. “It was quite windy today and this course is very tricky on the greens so it was really tough to hit it in close. I started with a bogey on one, which makes today feel even better. I also finished with a few birdies so overall I am very happy and proud.
“The course is amazing and is one of the best we play. I like the set up too as it is not very long so it means you need to be accurate.
“I usually play well in China. I had my biggest win here in Foshan and my best result on the European Tour came in China when I finished in the top ten. I seem to play really well here and I’m not sure why!”
“I’m very pleased with how I played today,” said Jung. “I got a little lucky on the front nine with the wind, I was able to play about five holes without it, and that really helped me get off to a good start.
“The wind then hit me and I just had to hang in there but I am really pleased with the way I was able to grind it out.
“I played here last year on the China Tour and it is definitely different this year. The greens are a lot firmer and I think you have to be a lot smarter with your approach play, but I really like that.
“It is a big opportunity for me and if I can be the winner at the end of the week it would be a great chance for me to get to Europe.”