Thursday, 25 January 2001
Hennie Otto thrilled the South African crowds at rain-soaked East London Golf Club when a superb seven-under par round of 65 gave the home favourite the lead in the first round of the Mercedes Benz South African Open.

The 24 year old from Boksburg, who was fifth in the event two years ago, claimed a slender one shot lead over Spain’s Ignacio Garrido, with Englishman Greg Owen, Switzerland’s Paolo Quirici and Welshman Bradley Dredge a shot further behind after respective 67’s.

Outbreaks of lightning caused two suspensions of play totalling two hours and 45 minutes and left a number of players unable to complete their opening rounds.

Included in that number were young Englishman Simon Dyson and South African Roger Wessells who stood at four under par after 16 and 13 holes respectively. The duo moved alongside South African duo Brendan
Pappas and James Kingston and Argentina’s Ricardo Gonzalez, who all posted opening 68's.

Leader Otto’s round was impressive given the self-inflicted pressure he has been under following a recent outburst in the South African Masters at the Wild Coast resort a fortnight ago.

After shooting a second round 80, Otto snapped most of his clubs in the car park and then dumped the offending items in a nearby river. He was not punished for the offence, but had to endure a certain amount of negative publicity in the local media in the wake of the incident.

However, armed with a new set of golf clubs alongside a new more positive attitude, the former European Challenge Tour player carded six birdies, one eagle and one bogey in his excellent opening effort.

Otto’s round started with a bogey on the par four first, but he bounced back with birdies at the second and third, before adding further birdies at the sixth and eighth for an outward nine of three-under par 33.

The back nine was even more impressive, which included an eagle on the par-five 11th and birdies at 12 and 13 for a 32. “The course played fairly easy today,” he said.

“There was no wind and the rain also stopped early on in my round, so it was a good day to score low. It is still tight and if you don’t hit the fairways you have almost no chance of reaching the green.”

Ryder Cup player Garrido rediscovered his form after a frustrating 2000 season on the European Tour International Schedule to post an excellent six under par 66 which gave the 28 year old from Madrid the edge over Owen, Quirici and Dredge.

Starting at the ninth hole, Garrido reached the turn in three under par 33 thanks to birdies at the 11th, 12th and 15th. An eagle three at the third followed by birdies at the sixth and seventh holes moved the Spaniard into a tie for the lead but he slipped back after dropping his only shot of the day at his final hole, the 477 yard ninth.

One shot behind, Englishman Owen had six birdies and just one dropped shot as he took advantage of unexpectedly benign conditions on the normally windswept course.

The 28 year old from Mansfield has yet to win after four years on the European Tour but continued in confident mood after his joint tenth place finish in the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Houghton Golf Club, where he discovered an unusual cause for a back problem that has plagued him for eight years.

A physiotherapist at the tournament noticed that his left leg appeared shorter than his right and after x-rays confirmed there was a 7mm difference, it was temporarily rectified for the final two rounds by taping a few pages of the Yellow Pages together inside his shoe.

A foam insert is in place for this week and Owen will use specially constructed in-soles when he can get some new wider shoes to take them. "I hope it really does make a difference," he said.

"It explains a lot about some of my swing faults and I felt the benefit straight away. It feels like I'm hitting it further because I'm getting more turn on the backswing and hopefully this is the start of a pain-free career.

“I used to wake up with pain every day but thought it was just hereditary because my dad has a bad back and it was something I was going to have to put up with."

Owen concurred with leader Otto on his thoughts on the course: “I’m delighted with the round and I hit the ball well, but the conditions were perfect,’’ he said. “Because of the rain the greens were a little softer and easier to putt on, but I don’t think this kind of weather will last for the entire tournament.

“This course is also tight so if you don’t hit the fairway you’re in trouble. On the seventh I only just missed the fairway but I came up short from 100 yards.”

Alongside Owen, Paolo Quirici had a strong finish to thank for his lofty position on the leaderboard, birding three of the last four holes for his 67, while Dredge had seven birdies and two bogeys for the same score.

Elsewhere however, it was not such a happy first round for Darren Clarke, one of the pre-tournament favourites, who included a triple bogey eight on the 510 yard third hole on his way to a five over par 77.

Ironically Clarke was two under after seven holes but dropped back to level before coming unstuck on the par five third hole, his 12th of the day after having started at the ninth.

Narrowly left of the putting surface in two, Clarke’s pitch to the green came up short in the bunker and from a bad lie, his fourth shot rose to the top of the bank before rolling back down past him.

From there it took three more attempts to find the putting surface, his seventh shot finishing just inches from the hole. "It was just one of those things," Clarke admitted afterwards.

"I didn't play that badly but I just got punished for a couple of wayward shots. It's disappointing after being two under and it could have been four or five - but at least I birdied the last!"

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