Welshman Sion Bebb continued the fine form he showed in The European Tour Qualifying School last month to take the lead after the first round of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.
The 39 year old – who took the ninth card on offer at San Roque – carded six birdies in total and only dropped one shot at the testing 413 yard 14th hole for a five under par 67 to lead the way by one shot from Scotland’s Craig Lee and Omar Sandys of South Africa.
“It feels excellent – I am very happy,” said the son of Welsh rugby legend Dewi. “It is where you want to be and I’m pleased. It was very difficult out there and when I started my round at the tenth, the wind was swirling around everywhere.
“I was hitting good shots but I still thought it was going to be a long day and a tough day because of the conditions. But I just hung on in there and holed some putts which was good.”
Like Bebb, Sandys also shed his only shot of the day at the 14th but made up for that with five birdies elsewhere in a tidy opening round of 68.
“It’s a nice feeling to be up there after a long time,” he said. “I thought I was looking at three under par but then I made a good birdie on the 17th and just lucked out on the 18th for another one. But I’m delighted with four under.”
Another man more than delighted with his showing was Scotsman Lee, not only for the fact he was tied for second in his first outing in his rookie season on The European Tour, but also for the fact that, three months ago, he had given up all hope of being in such a position in the first place.
The 30 year old from Stirling pondered entering The European Tour Qualifying School but, after having assessed his dwindling finances, he decided he could not justify the £1,150 entry fee.
However, a family friend who owns a scrap metal business told Lee he would pay the money to allow him to enter and the former Tartan Tour professional did not look back, coming through Stage One at St Annes Old Links and Stage Two at Costa Ballena, before taking the 21st card on offer in the Finals.
He was one of only four players to undertake the entire journey from Stage One to the top 30 in the Final Stage and continued to tap into a rich vein of form at the Mpumalanga venue, carding eight birdies in total in his opening round of 68 and indeed, he could have shared the lead with Bebb had he not dropped a shot at the 448 yard 17th.
Three players shared fourth place on three under par 69, England’s Richard Bland and the South African duo of George Coetzee and Thabang Simon – the toughness of the windy conditions on the opening day illustrated by the fact that only 21 of the 156 starters managed to break par.
Amongst those was pre-tournament favourite Ernie Els who carded a two under par 70 for a share of seventh place in his quest to pen another chapter for himself in golf’s record books.
Since 1972, outside the Major Championships and World Golf Championships, only three golfers have won a single European Tour Order of Merit event on four or more occasions; Bernhard Langer, who won five German Opens and four German Masters, Nick Faldo who won four PGA Championships at Wentworth Club, and Seve Ballesteros who captured the Open de France four times.
Els has a chance to join that exclusive club this week when he attempts to win the Alfred Dunhill Championship for a fourth time, his previous victories coming in the 1995 season at the Wanderers Club, in the 1999 season at Houghton Golf Club, and in the 2006 season at Leopard Creek.
Certainly the three time Major winner – third in last week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge – got off to a solid start. He was two under par for 16 holes of his round before shedding a shot at the 17th after pushing his drive into the trees.
But the 38 year old South African recovered manfully at the last, finding the green in two at the 541 yard 18th and two putting for a closing birdie four.