They may have ended up narrowly missing out a place in the three-man play-off that decided the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa, but a number of European Tour rookies covered themselves in glory this week at Royal Durban Golf Club.
Germany’s Max Kieffer, who secured his European Tour card after graduating from the Challenge Tour in 13th place last season, hit the opening tee shot of the weather-delayed second round at 0630 on Sunday, firing five birdies and just two bogeys en route to a second consecutive three under par 62 on the revised layout in KwaZulu-Natal.
The impressive Kieffer finished the tournament in a tie for fourth place at six under par – one outside the score that made the decisive play-off – alongside fellow former Challenge Tour player Morten Orum Madsen, who had begun the day tied for the lead in Durban after a fine 60 in his first round.
“It was another good round,” summarised Kieffer. “I didn’t drive it as well as yesterday but scrambled well and putter got a bit hotter the second nine.
“A lot of guys told me that if you make it through Challenge Tour you are good enough but it’s still a different world out here. You are nervous and you want to see how good you actually are and this week bodes well for the rest of the year.
“The Challenge Tour shows you the up and downs of professional life so I felt well-prepared for the step up.”
Qualifying School graduate Madsen again started well on Sunday with a birdie at the short third before dropped shots at the fourth, fifth and eighth holes seemed to have derailed the Dane’s title bid before back-to-back birdies either side of the turn and a further gain at the par four 12th completed a highly satisfying opening turn on the upper echelons of the European game.
Madsen was also pleased with his opening efforts but felt it was a week that could have been even better in the end were it not for some wayward approaches on his back nine.
He said: “Overall I’m really happy with how I played considering it was my first tournament out as a European Tour player.
“I’m a little bit disappointed in how I finished – I wasn’t hitting it close enough – but if someone had offered me a top five finish at the start of the week I would have taken it in a heartbeat, so I have to be over the moon with my start really.”
Bjorn Akesson got off to a flying start on the back nine with birdies at the tenth and 11th holes and the Swede, who also secured a card at the Qualifying School Final Stage in Girona, made a further four gains that were slightly tempered by three bogeys to sign for a three under par 62 and a share of eighth place.
Heading to the driveable, par four ninth, two shots shy of the clubhouse lead, Akesson admitted he had not really realised that an eagle there would have earned him a spot in the sudden-death play-off eventually won by Scotland’s Scott Jamieson.
“It feels really good to prove to yourself that you have the game to compete at this level,” he Akesson. “On the last hole (the ninth) someone said to me, ‘Bjorn, why didn’t you hit a driver or three wood because an eagle would get you in the play-off?’ but it I just hadn’t really thought about it.
“But despite that, I’m really happy with this week and already looking forward to Leopard Creek and the next tournament – to go on a safari as much as the golf!”
The other rookies who finished in the money in their first appearances as European Tour Members were Moritz Lampert, who only turned professional after gaining his card at last week’s Final Stage and finished tied 32nd after a two under par 63 on Sunday, Scott Arnold, Chris Lloyd and Chris Paisley, who all finished tied 39th on one under, and Kristoffer Broberg and Espen Kofstad, who were tied for 54th place at level par.