Frenchman Michael Lorenzo-Vera fired an opening five under par 67 to lead the Volvo China Open as he set about trying to claim a third successive victory for Les Bleus in regular European Tour events.
Last year’s Challenge Tour Number One capitalised on the benign morning conditions at Beijing CBD International Golf Club to lead a group of seven players and will be hoping he can emulate the feats of his countrymen Thomas Levet and Gregory Bourdy in the fortnight before the Masters Tournament.
Levet captured the MAPFRE Open de Andalucia by Valle Romano when he held off Oliver Fisher in a play-off and a week later Bourdy followed suit when he too prevailed in sudden-death to win the Estoril Open de Portugal. The run was broken by Trevor Immelman’s triumph in the first Major Championship of the year but with normal business resumed, it is another Frenchman to the fore on The European Tour’s visit to China’s capital city.
England’s Richard Finch threatened the lead as he fared the best of the later starters in a testing afternoon wind but had to settle for a four under par 68 and a seven way share of second place and the end of the opening day.
Lorenzo-Vera, the first Frenchman to be crowned Challenge Tour Number One, admitted he has struggled to adjust to the step up to The European Tour but has recently started to relax and enjoy his game. His only mistake during the opening round came at his first hole but he shrugged that off with six birdies without putting another foot wrong in his round.
“I’m very pleased with that,” said the 23 year old. “I have had a few problems with my game but now I am just enjoying it. I am making better decisions and it is getting easier. I was making mistakes with the strategy and that is getting much better, so I am very happy.”
Lorenzo-Vera confessed to being terrified when he lined up on the range alongside the likes of Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh at the HSBC Champions on his first visit to China last November but with the support of fellow Frenchman, such as Bourdy and Levet, has started to trust his game and found a calmness on the course.
“I am just learning on the season,” continued Loreonzo-Vera. “I like to learn in competition, that’s the best way to learn. We have a very good group, the French caddies and players and they all tell me to be calmer and more confident in my game. When I first came out, I was on the practise and saw Vijay and Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson and I was thinking ‘Where is my game?’. I just have to be more confident on what I am doing. That’s what I am trying to do.”
Finch cuts a much more relaxed figure on the course, helped by both his maiden victory in New Zealand at the start of the season and his recent nuptials. After birdieing his first hole, a holed mid wedge on his second hole, the 11th, for an eagle two further eased the pressure on what was looking like being a tough afternoon.
“That was a nice quick start, three under after two, so that was nice to have a few in the bank early on,” said Finch. “I’m really pleased with the round overall. With the wind stronger than this morning it was always going to be a tough day but I tried to play sensibly and hit the pins where I could. Some of the pins you, couldn’t even attempt to make birdie or attack the pin and you had to just try and hit the green and have a longer putt, and if it dropped in it was a bonus. I got fortunate with a couple of those.”
Joost Luiten of The Netherlands, like Lorenzo-Vera a Challenge Tour graduate from last year, was also on four under par along with the English par of Simon Griffiths and Zane Scotland, Ireland’s Damien McGrane and James Knutzon of the United States, with China’s Li Chao leading the home challenge by also shooting 68 in the event sanctioned by The European Tour, Asian Tour and China Golf Association.
Griffiths, who competes on the Asian Tour but hails from Wentworth Club in England, produced the shot of the day when, after a terrible drive on the seventh went way right, he managed to cut a five wood 200 yards through the trees and into the hole. That shot, coupled with four birdies helped him to the turn in 29 and he reached seven under par with another birdie at the 11th. But he fell back into the pack with three successive dropped shots in the middle of his back nine.
David Howell’s round turned from miraculous to disastrous in the blink of an eye. A remarkable putting performance helped him reach five under par with four to play and even after dropping shots on the sixth and eighth was still in the thick of things. But after two visits to the water on the par five ninth he finished with a triple bogey eight to finish at level par and five off the lead.
“Five under would have been miraculous, three under great but level is disastrous,” was all Howell could say.
Defending champion Markus Brier opening his account with a one under par 71 while pre-tournament favourite Graeme McDowell came in at one over par 73.