There are many different ways to prepare for a golf tournament but perhaps one of the most uncommon is on horseback playing polo. However, that was the route Ricardo Gonzalez took in preparation for The Commercialbank Qatar Masters and it seemed to pay dividends as the Argentine moved into a share of the first round lead with Henrik Stenson at Doha Golf Club.
The 36 year old, who finished fourth in last week’s inaugural Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, carded a six under par 66 to move alongside the Swede, who finished second to Chris DiMarco in Abu Dhabi. The duo stood one shot clear of a trio of players, Thailand’s Chawalit Plaphol, the 2003 champion Darren Fichardt of South Africa and English amateur Danny Denison, playing in his first professional tournament, who was naturally delighted with his 67.
Gonzalez, a three time winner on The European Tour International Schedule, arrived in Qatar on Monday and met up with friends who have some polo ponies and who invited the Argentine to give it a try.
“My friends were teaching me,” said Gonzalez. “It is basically the same as golf as far as the swinging of the club is concerned, the only difference is that I have a horse underneath me instead of grass!”
Certainly Gonzalez quickly got into the swing of his first round, starting at the tenth hole and carding five birdies in eight holes from the 11th to reach the ‘turn’ in 31. Further birdies followed at the fourth and fifth before he dropped his only shot of the day at the short eighth where he missed the green with his eight iron tee shot.
“I played great again,” he said. “On my first nine holes I hit it really solid and I will try to stay up there after last week and play the same. Hit good drivers and irons to the greens. Today I was just very relaxed. I'm feeling confident with my swing. When you hit it good, you relax more.”
Ironically, it was not until the back nine that joint leader Stenson got his game going, the 29 year old Swede firing four birdies and an eagle two at the 307 yard 16th where he drove the green, in a back nine of 30.
“I suppose I have carried on my form from last week but but it is also from the pro-am on Wednesday,” he said. “I was hitting the ball really well then and I actually said to my caddie, that you don’t want to be hitting the ball that well on a Wednesday.
“Today I got off to a bit of a trembling start but then got it back on track after a couple of holes and played really well on the back nine and hit a couple of good shots close to make an eagle and a couple of birdies. So it was a good start.”
While Gonzalez and Stenson shared the lead, most of the plaudits around the testing Doha Golf Club were reserved for 20 year old English amateur Denison, playing in his first professional tournament, who completed a debut to remember with a stunning opening five under par 67.
Indeed, the former England boy international could have shared the lead with Gonzalez but he dropped a shot at the 18th hole after finding trouble in the rough with his drive. But in no way could that dampen the enthusiasm of the young Yorkshireman who admitted he could not wait to turn on his mobile phone to see if any of his pals back home had caught his dazzling debut.
“My first goal was to make the cut, I just wanted to prepare as normal for a tournament and just forget who was in the field and thankfully I did,” said Denison who got into the tournament by virtue of winning the Qatar Golf Amateur Open at the Doha Golf Club in December. “I just tried to block out everything that was going around and tried to play my own game and it worked.”
Any nerves he might have had were settled, firstly by playing a practice round with Lee Westwood on Wednesday and then by birdieing the first hole from 15 feet. From there on he looked as if he had been playing the professional game all his life with five other birdies, including four in a row from the seventh, before his blip on the last.
“I am hoping to turn professional in September and go to Tour School but obviously that will depend on whether I get the right sponsors and get the right money,” he said. “But I think I am playing well enough.”
Further down the leaderboard, the two pre-tournament favourites – Ernie Els and Vijay Singh – had testing days.
Els, the defending champion and the man looking to make the cut to equal Bernhard Langer’s record of 69 consecutive cuts made on The European Tour, carded a one under par 71, while Singh had three birdies but four bogeys in his opening one over par 73.