In-form José Rivero hit the top of the leaderboard at Woburn Golf Club as he looks to close the gap to Sam Torrance at the head of the European Seniors Tour Order of Merit, but in second place was Pete Oakley, a man who has deep personal reasons for wanting another good performance in this week’s European Senior Masters.
The Spaniard, twice a winner this season and third on the Order of Merit, produced a brilliant round of six under par 66 to open up a three stroke lead over American Oakley and Argentine Horacio Carbonetti, who both negotiated the Duke’s Course in 69.
Oakley shared fifth place in last year’s event and remembers spending a happy few days in Bedfordshire with his brother David, who was also playing.
However, happiness turned to despair when David was later diagnosed with cancer. After a brave battle, the elder of the siblings passed away two months ago leaving Pete struggling to come to terms not only with the loss of a brother, but also someone with whom he shared his golfing life.
“Ever since his diagnosis I had not been able to break 80, but now I am learning to get along without him and coping with the grief. As a result my game is starting to come together a little bit now,” explained Pete after signing for a 69 that was two strokes lower than his opening effort in 2005.
As part of the grieving process, Pete has sprinkled some of David’s ashes on golf courses where they had played together on the European Seniors Tour. It is a hugely symbolic act and he would like nothing more than to follow this up by winning at Woburn.
A strong performance this week is also important from a purely professional perspective, as Oakley’s exemption for winning The 2004 Senior British Open Championship at Portrush expired on July 25 and he needs to win one of the five remaining events or finish inside the top 30 on the Order of Merit to be certain of keeping his card. He is currently 40th on the standings.
One man who definitely has no worries about his status for next year is Rivero, who instead has an eye on toppling Torrance at the top of the Order of Merit. The Spanish former Ryder Cup player won twice earlier in the season and has returned to form lately with four consecutive top ten finishes.
He kept this run going with another fine round on Friday and although his driving was not at his best, he only missed three fairways and each time saved par.
A faultless front nine of four under took Rivero into the lead and apart from a bogey six at the 11th, the man from Madrid managed to negotiate the tricky homeward stretch without too many difficulties.
One of the highlights came at the 15th – statistically the hardest hole of the first round – when he cut a three iron approach into the green from 218 yards and holed a three foot putt for one of three back-nine birdies.
“I was perhaps a little lucky after that but I did play well today. This is a beautiful golf course, the weather was fantastic and I am delighted with a 66,” commented Rivero.
Meanwhile, pre-tournament favourites Sam Torrance and Mark James face a massive salvage job after finishing a combined total of nine over par.
James, who beat Torrance in a play-off to win this event last year, had just one birdie in an opening round of four over par 76 to end the day ten shots behind Rivero.
Faring even worse was Torrance, the European Seniors Tour Number One who faces a massive challenge following a 77 that contained five birdies, four bogeys and three double-bogeys.
James said: “If I don’t shoot 66 or better tomorrow then I am toast and I’d say Sam is in the same position. I can’t believe the pair of us scored like we did: you would have thought that one of us could have ground out a level par round.”
Torrance has made a habit of starting slow this year, but it has not prevented him from winning four times - and twice in the past two weeks.
“Everything went wrong today. I seem to like setting myself even bigger challenges,” said Torrance in reference to starting with a 76 at last week’s Charles Church Scottish Seniors Open and then coming through to win.
The Scotsman’s troubles on Friday started at the first hole when he blocked his tee shot into the trees and made bogey. Worse was to follow at the next.
After flying his seven iron approach clear over the green at the second, Torrance was faced with an atrocious lie and in trying to move a nearby twig, his ball moved and he was penalised a stroke before going on to make a double-bogey six.
He never fully recovered from this horror start and eventually signed for a five over par 77, which leaves him languishing in 58th place from a field of 73 golfers.