Carl Pettersson surpassed his own expectations at The Country Club in Durban as The 2002 European Tour International Schedule emerged from winter hibernation with the first round of the Bell’s South African Open.
The 24 year old Swede, who commutes from his home base of Raleigh, North Carolina, conjured up a bogey free eight under par 64 as his opening effort of the year to sustain his dream of breaking into the winners’ enclosure on The European Tour.
Petterson leads by two strokes from no fewer than six players on 66 – four from the Sunshine Tour in South Africa, Andrew Butterfield of England and Scotland’s Alastair Forsyth.
As an amateur at college in the United States, Pettersson won four All-American titles to set alongside his European Amateur Championship, but now his sights are trained firmly on his first title as a professional.
He said: “I was quite pleased finishing 61st on the Volvo Order of Merit last season but I had a good amateur record and set high goals for myself. I’ve had a great start to the 2002 season with a tied fourth in the BMW Asian Open in Taiwan and fifth in the Omega Hong Kong Open just before Christmas.
“Although I finished second in Argentina as well, a win in my only goal this year. I want to win and take it from there. There is a long way to go but we’ll see what happens. I enjoy playing on The European Tour. I will play for four or five years here and try to get established but, as I live in America, I plan to go and play there eventually.”
Pettersson opened with a birdie four and followed it with seven more during a near flawless round which brought raised eyebrows from the man himself. He smiled: “I had four weeks off and didn’t play much golf so I was pleasantly surprised. I hit one or two bad shots from being rusty but I recovered nicely and made some good putts.”
A product of North Carolina State University, Pettersson roomed for a year with another student of that college – South African Tim Clark. By coincidence, Clark was first out at The Country Club and returned a six under par 66 to take the early lead before being overtaken by his friend.
Clark, 27, won the pre-qualifying event on Monday to get into the field – also with a round of 66 – but his heart still lies on the US PGA Tour. He qualified to play there in 2001 through finishing third in the Buy.Com Tour but tore a cartilage in his right wrist in Hawaii exactly a year ago.
“I needed surgery in March to fix it and missed the rest of the season” he said. “It doesn’t hurt now but it’s not 100 per cent right. I’ve got a medical exemption for this year and will go back to the States later this month to play in the AT & T.”
Also on 66 were South Africans James Kingston, Des Terblanche and Ashley Roestoff while Butterfield – seventh in The European Tour Qualifying School last November – closed with three straight birdies to join the group on six under.
It was a better day, though, for Forsyth, who won the Qualifying School Finals in 1999 but lost his exempt status last year, finishing in 116th place on the Volvo Order of Merit. Playing on an invitation, the Scot collected three birdies in each half to shoot 66 and admitted: “I played a lot better than I did at the end of last year.
“I worked a lot over the winter at the driving range with my coach. At times last year the bad shots were very bad indeed and I didn’t know what to expect this week. I was a bit apprehensive but today felt a million times better.”
There were mixed fortunes for the Major Champions in the field. Tournament favourite, Ernie Els, struggled to a one over par 73 but current US Open Champion, Retief Goosen, fired a 67 and 1999 Open Champion carded a 68.
Goosen confessed: “I played pretty terribly today – 24 putts for 67 so I had to scramble a bit. I am disappointed with the way I played but the score at the end of the day isn’t too bad. I got it up and down many times on the front nine. I only had ten putts on the front nine.”
Lawrie’s preparations for the heat and humidity of Durban were not handicapped by the deep snow outside his Aberdeen home. The Scot, who birdie four holes in a row from the 11th, explained: “I have a room in my house where I can hit balls with a net, mat and video cameras. I have a putting green indoors as well where I can chip and putt for the weather didn’t affect me.
“I feel as if I’ve never been away and I feel in good shape. I got it going after a bogey at my first hole and played really nicely.”