Jean Hugo led a posse of players from the host nation at the top of the leaderboard after the first round of the South African Airways Open at Erinvale Golf Club near Cape Town. The 27 year old from nearby Stellenbosch fired a six under par 66 to lead by a stroke from compatriots Tim Clark and James Kingston.
Erinvale has been a happy hunting ground for South Africans. Seven years ago, Ernie Els and Wayne Westner won the World Cup of Golf at the same venue and now the locals are hoping of one of their number emulates that success.
Victory this week would could as a welcome relief to Hugo, who finished 34th on the Volvo Order of Merit in 2001 but dropped down to 120th last season and was unable to retain his card at the Qualifying School Finals.
“I’m glad I played well today to prove to myself, rather than anyone else, that I can still do it” said Hugo. “I don’t know my schedule this season as I don’t have an exemption. I will play in anything I can and intend playing the Challenge Tour – whatever I need to do to get it back.”
Hugo made six birdies and did not drop a shot in an immaculate card which contained symmetrical halves of 33. The 1998 South African amateur champion, who made his professional debut in the 1999 Open Golf Championship at Carnoustie, added; “I probably wasn’t focussed enough last year. I expected to carry on as I had left off the previous season and even after missing a lot of cuts, I still thought I would sneak through at the end.
“I didn’t, but I’m much more focussed now that I was. That is probably the difference. My course management has improved and I played very sensibly.”
Clark, the defending champion, had to enter the pre-qualifying competition last year (which he won) and then found his way into the tournament proper (which he also won). Like Hugo, he made no error and picked up five birdies in a controlled round of 67 which underlined his growing stature in the game.
The man from Natal Province successfully kept his card on the US PGA Tour last season and intends playing a full schedule there and a minimum of 11 events of The European Tour in 2003. He said: “I am going to base myself in Arizona, but I love playing in Europe and want to come over for a few weeks at a time.
“I was certainly more nervous when I stepped on the first tee last year. I don’t think being defending champion has adversely affected my golf. Quite the reverse in fact. I felt comfortable all day and three of my birdies were simple tap-ins from about a foot.”
Kingston, like Hugo, did not perform well enough to gain a card on The European Tour last season, finishing 129th. However he has been close to winning several times, including the South African Airways Open 12 months ago.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong last year” he confided. “Tim Clark and Steve Webster played unbelievable golf on the last day. I played nicely and shot 69 but was outplayed by two 65s. I gave myself a good chance and right now I’m in a good position with three days to go.”
No fewer that five players are grouped behind the leading three on 68 – Andrew Coltart and David Drysdale of Scotland, Peter Lawrie of Ireland, the Netherlands’ Rolf Muntz and Englishman Iain Pyman.
Pyman, who graduated from the Challenge Tour for a second time last year, was six under par with three holes to play but hit his second shot into a ditch from a perfect lie at the seventh (his 16th) to run up a double bogey.
“A disappointing way to finish, but overall I’m pleased to shoot four under” said Pyman, the 1993 Amateur Champion. “If I had hit my fairways shots a bit better I could have been eight or nine under.”
Lee Westwood, the 2000 Volvo Order of Merit winner, was three under par after even holes but slipped up and eventually signed for a three over par 75.