Sunningdale-based Tony Johnstone, the Sky golf analyst and former PGA Championship winner, rediscovered his putting touch to grab a share of the lead with England’s Nick Job after round one of the Open de France Senior Divonne.
The fact that Johnstone is at Golf du Domaine de Divonne at all owes everything to his considerable strength of body and mind, given that the Zimbabwean was told he would never play golf again after being struck down by multiple sclerosis.
That was three years ago and now, having won the biggest battle of his life thanks to a revolutionary drug trial, Johnstone is focusing all his energies on a maiden European Seniors Tour triumph in France, where he started strongly with a five under par 67 to tie Londoner Job at the top.
Italy’s Costantino Rocca, who won the French Open on The European Tour in 1993, is a shot further back after a 68 and shares third spot with Chile’s Guillermo Encina and Australian David Good.
England’s Bob Cameron, who won this title on its only previous staging in 2004, started with a two under par 70.
Johnstone put his charge to the top down to a change of grip and putter. “I have been hitting the ball well all season but putting horribly. I have been looking for the answer and have changed putters and method. I have gone back to a putting grip I used 20 years ago – a baseball grip – and I holed some really good putts during my round.”
These included par saves, both from ten feet, at the 13 and 14th holes and a longer one that included four feet of break at the last, when he escaped with a par three after finding a tree right of the green.
“If I had played like that two weeks ago I would have shot par. I have said to friends and family that as soon as I can get the putter working just average then I will be a contender, and I think I just about proved that today,” added the 51 year old, whose 1992 win at Wentworth Club was the pick of six European Tour triumphs.
Three victories on the Seniors Tour confirms Job’s status as a contender and the Thames Ditton golfer was back to somewhere near his best after a niggling back injury.
The 2007 Gloria Classic winner was out in three under par 34 in spite of a double bogey seven, before coming home with two birdies (tenth and 13th) and seven pars to set the clubhouse mark at five under.
“It should have been better. I had a few chances on the back nine and that double-bogey at the seventh hurt me. I’m three under and standing on the seventh tee with everything going nice.
Then this great big horsefly landed on my driver as I began my swing. It put me off and I whooshed the ball into the woods, hacked it out, knocked it up and three putted it for seven. I birdied the next three in a row, so I got it back,” remarked Job, who is using some new Mizuno MP60 clubs this week.
Exactly what Carl Mason, round in 70, thought of Job’s progress is anyone’s guess as Mason had taken time out to give his good friend a lesson during Wednesday’s Pro-Am and now finds himself three strokes back in a share of 11th place.
Two strokes off the early pace are five players on 69 – Jerry Bruner of the United States, South African John Mashego, Ireland’s Denis O’Sullivan and the Spanish duo of Juan Quiros and José Rivero.
Rivero captured the French Open exactly 20 years ago when he closed with a brilliant 63 and, like Rocca, has a chance of becoming the first winner of both national titles.
“It would be fantastic to add the Senior Open in France. I did not play that well today but I finished strongly over the last four holes. So now I am feeling better about things. Three under is okay, not great today as the conditions were perfect for scoring, but I am well placed,” added Rivero, who closed in birdie-par-birdie-birdie.
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