Julien Guerrier produced a sparkling display on the opening day of the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final to take a share of the lead and stake a late claim for one of the 20 golden tickets on offer.
A round of 66 helped the flying Frenchman set the clubhouse target on five under par, where he was joined by Spaniard Jorge Campillo, who is hoping to cement his place in the top 15 of the Rankings, home hero Andrea Pavan and Portugal’s Ricardo Santos, both of whom have designs on topping the Rankings.
Having entered the week in 37th place in the Rankings, it is perhaps Guerrier who has the most to gain at the season-ending event, which is being held at the stunning San Domenico Golf, in the Puglia region of southern Italy, for the seventh successive year.
Guerrier reeled off four birdies but the highlight of the 2006 Amateur Champion’s day came at the 15th hole, where he used his driver from the fairway to devastating effect, hitting his approach to 25 feet and holing out for an eagle which more than compensated for his three-putt bogey on the previous hole.
A birdie on the 17th hole moved him to five under par, and he was later joined on that mark by Campillo and Challenge Tour champions Santos, currently third in the Rankings, and Pavan, who is sponsored by San Domenico Golf.
Guerrier said: “Everyone’s out here to win this week and there are a lot of players who can win, but because I can only qualify with a first or second finish, it actually allows me to relax a little bit so that helped me today. I don’t really have anything to lose, so I’m just going for it.
“After the bogey on 14 I was a bit angry with myself, but I hit a good drive down 15 and it was over 250 yards to the pin so I went for the driver again from the fairway, and got to about 25 feet from the pin then holed the putt. So I was very happy with that. Other than that, I was just solid today.
“The conditions are quite good at the moment, much better than the last time I was here two years ago, when the course was playing really difficult. So I’m expecting some good scores out there this week if the weather stays the same.”
Campillo has twice come close to securing his maiden Challenge Tour title in his debut campaign, only to fall just short at both the Acaya Open and the Rolex Open.
But those two tied runner-up finishes, allied with two further top ten finishes, have helped him climb to 13th place in the Rankings and within sight of promotion to the top tier, which would erase the heartache he experienced at last year’s Qualifying School Final Stage, where he had one hand on a European Tour card before undoing his hard work with a closing round of 81.
In contrast, the 25 year old from Caceres compiled a flawless round of 66, hitting 17 greens in regulation.
He said: “I played really well, although I didn’t get off to the best of starts. I hit my drive left off the tee and then and couldn’t get there in two, but I managed to get up and down and after that I played some really solid stuff. I didn’t make too many putts – three of my birdies were from within three feet – but from tee to green, it was very good. I’m really happy with my round, and hopefully I can make a few more putts tomorrow.
“I’m trying to break into the top ten of the Rankings, because that’s where everyone wants to be. I’ve got a very good chance. I don’t need to win, but if I play four solid rounds then it I should be enough to finish in the top ten.”
Pavan knows every contour of the layout at San Domenico Golf, and he used his local knowledge to good effect by notching eight birdies in a dynamic display on home soil.
The Rome resident started the season without a playing category, but after receiving some sponsors’ invitations his talent soon shone through, and a second victory of the season would give him every chance of following in the spikemarks of his illustrious compatriot Edoardo Molinari, the Rankings winner in 2009.
Pavan said: “I hit a couple of poor drives but also some very good ones, just like I hit some great putts but also some average ones. But that’s golf, and if I can tighten up a little bit from the tee and on the greens, hopefully I can score even better. With the conditions perfect for scoring today, I knew I’d have to make a lot of birdies to stay in touch, and luckily I was able to do that.
“I’ve obviously played the course many times, but today was my first tournament round here, so it felt a little different. I read the greens well today, and managed to put it in the right places on the fairways. I also know how the course plays in the wind, so if it comes in the next few days, it might help my chances.”
Having led the Rankings for much of the season before being overtaken by first Tommy Fleetwood and latterly Sam Little, Santos will be keen to reassert his authority over the two Englishman, who were his playing partners in a thrilling three-ball which produced 15 birdies and just two bogeys.
Santos said: “I played OK, not fantastic, but my short game was really good today. I made a few very good saves on the front nine, and then a few nice birdies on the back nine. I’ve been working on my short game for the last two weeks and focused on that a lot, so I’ve got a lot more confidence with my chipping now.
“My best shot was probably on 12th hole, where I hit a rescue club from the tee onto the green. I missed the birdie putt but I think it’s very important not to get into any trouble on that hole, so it kept my confidence going.
“It was a really enjoyable day because the two guys played very well too. It was the first time I’ve played with Sam and the second time I’ve played with Tommy. They are really good guys, it was a very friendly atmosphere.”
Fleetwood and Little, currently second and first respectively in the Rankings, signed for matching rounds of 67, meaning their battle for supremacy at the top of the tree looks likely to go down to the wire.