Englishman Benn Barham and Spaniard Jordi Garcia both carded two under par 69 in the second round of the Mugello Tuscany Open to edge ahead on a tightly-packed leaderboard.
The pair reached six under par for the tournament to lead by one shot from four players at Poggio dei Medici Golf Club in Florence, Italy, while eight players are another shot back on four under.
Barham set the target in the morning, picking up shots at the first, ninth, 15th and 18th to counter bogeys at the second and sixth, and Garcia maintained the pressure in the afternoon with three birdies and one bogey.
The 35 year old from Kent, England is playing only his third Challenge Tour event since recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous kidney towards the end of last year.
“The front nine is a bit more difficult so I felt level par for nine holes was okay, and there are more chances on the back nine,” said Barham. “So I just tried to hit fairways and greens and made a nice birdie at the 15th, a great par save on the 16th and a good birdie at the last. Two good rounds so far.
“I’m enjoying myself this week. I love Italy and the countryside and this is a lovely part of the world. I’ve had some nice food, one of my favourite things, and I’m staying in a lovely place this week. I’ve been sleeping like a log, which I think is due to the toughness of the course. It must be at least a five-mile walk. This afternoon I think we’re going to the local motor racing track.
“I intend to just keep playing the way I am and drawing on past experiences to spur me on. It’ll be good to turn a negative situation into a positive situation.”
Garcia finds himself in unfamiliar territory at the top of the leaderboard, but is confident he can maintain his good form over the weekend.
“I’m playing pretty well,” said the 25 year old. “I’ve been working well the last three or four months. Now the only thing I can do is enjoy the weekend. This is the first time I’ve led a Challenge Tour event.
“I’m in category 11 so I can only play about ten tournaments this year, so hopefully I can play well over the weekend and either win or do well enough to ensure I have some invitations for more events.
“I said yesterday that I’ve been very happy with the way I’ve been playing lately. I finished 41st in the Spanish Open last week despite being seven over in the third round. I’ve just got to keep up this form.”
Scotland’s Jamie McLeary had the joint-best round of the day, bouncing back from a double bogey at the second hole to sign for a four under par 67, five under overall.
“I’ve missed a few putts this week, which isn’t really like me, but I’m happy with five under,” said the 30 year old, whose only previous Challenge Tour victory was at the 2009 Scottish Hydro Challenge. “I’ve had a couple of double bogeys, one on each day, on the first and second hole, so to be up at the top of the leaderboard after those is good.
“Last week I finished 15th (in the Allianz Challenge de France) despite leading after two rounds. I’ve been having bad weekends for the last year and a half so I hope this week is going to be the turning point.
“I’ve been practising my heart out over the winter and I started working with a new coach at the end of last year. He identified that my short irons and wedges weren’t very good, and the difference in them compared to last year is unbelievable, so he’s been really good. He’s made a huge difference to my game so I’m really hoping I might get my European Tour card this season.”
Matteo Delpodio is the highest-placed of the Italian contingent, having carded a 68 to reach five under for the tournament. The highlight of his round was an eagle three at the third.
“I’m making many fairways and greens, just trying to be consistent,” he said. “For the eagle I hit a three wood from the rough 228 yards to about a metre from the pin.
“When you have an eagle it gives you a confidence boost and everything comes together, and it also made up for yesterday when I hit a perfect three wood and it just stopped on the top of the slope on the green. If it was half a metre more it could have been a gimme but I ended up three-putting. So today I took what I was owed from yesterday.”