Thailand’s Chapchai Nirat raced into a three stroke lead after a sensational course record of 61, 11 under par, in the first round of the TCL Classic at Yalong Bay Golf Club in China.
Nirat produced some stunning golf on the holiday resort of Hainan Island, firing 11 birdies in a flawless display to lead European Tour rookie Rafael Echenique of Argentina in the event co-sanctioned by The European Tour and the Asian Tour.
Nirat, who gained plenty of experience by playing three events over the Sanya course last year, changed his putter at the start of the week and has immediately reaped the reward.
His 11 under par 61 shaved a stroke off the previous course record, established last year by China’s Liang Wen-chong and American Edward Loar.
“I didn't look excited on the course because I was just playing my game and I just kept thinking about the next birdie, just getting on with it,” said 23 year old Nirat. "But inside I was happy. I drove the ball well, my irons were good and I was bogey free.
“It might look easy out there but it’s not when you are playing it. The rough is tough and makes it difficult so it was good that I hit the ball straight today.”
Echenique, who graduated from the Challenge Tour last season in seventh place before winning his national Open earlier this year, made eight birdies and an eagle three on the 13th with a bogey on the par three 15th the only blemish on his card to lie in second place.
Echenique reached the turn in four under par and kept the momentum going by saving par on the tenth, getting up and down after missing the green on the left side. The eagle on the 13th put the icing on the cake as, after driving into the fairway bunker, hit a magnificent recovery from 220 yards to 16 feet and rolling in the putt.
Despite dropping a shot on the 15th, he made two good par saves on the 16th and 17th, the latter after hitting into water, before birdieing the last from 20 feet.
“This is my first time at this course and it is beautiful,” he said. ”I heard that last year it was easier, there was less rough. Today I played really well. I started driving perfectly and my putting was excellent.”
Wen Teh Lu of Chinese Taipei, New Zealand’s Richard Lee and South African Keith Horne all lie a further stroke back after opening rounds of 65, seven under par, while Ryder Cup player Lee Westwood made a solid start to the week to lie on six under par 66.
Westwood made a perfect start with a birdie on his first hole, the tenth, and then saving par on the 11th by chipping in before eagling the 13th. Despite struggling to read the greens, another five birdies and two bogeys followed to lie in a share of sixth place.
“I hit a lot of good putts out there without reading the right lines,” he said. “I used to be a good grainy green putter but I’ve lost the knack of reading them, I think. I played well from tee to green and I’ve been working on a few things. I felt quite quite comfortable out there. I got quite lucky on the second where I chipped in, but all in all, 66 was about the worst it could have been.”
Frankie Minoza produced the shot of the day by making an albatross on the 544 yards 13th hole when he holed his second shot.