He’s staying at Woburn Abbey as a special guest of the Duke of Bedford – and Italy’s Costantino Rocca duly found a regal touch over the Duke’s Course at Woburn Golf Club to shoot a three under par 69 to lead the European Senior Masters.
A group of four players – Scotland’s John Chillas, Australia’s David Good, Spain’s Manuel Pinero and Argentina’s Adan Sowa – are one shot adrift after carding two under par rounds of 70, while defending champion, England’s Carl Mason, is one further back after a 71.
However, maintaining the form he showed in winning Wednesday’s pro-am – “I only won because my handicap keeps going up,” he quipped – it was Rocca who set the pace on day one in his first tournament appearance at Woburn Golf Club as a senior.
“I have to play well, otherwise the Duke says I will have to sleep outside and with all the deer,” he joked after revealing he has been an invited guest at Woburn Abbey on each of his previous four visits. “I enjoy coming here very much to play at Woburn – and it is a lovely place to stay,” he added.
The 50 year old fired five birdies and dropped just two shots to top the leaderboard and, although pleased with the quality of his iron play and putting, felt his course management was the key to his score.
Rocca said: “If you hit the ball left and right, you are dead, with all the trees, so sometimes it is better to leave the driver in the bag, and have a seven iron instead of a nine iron to hit into the greens. I was happy to do that. I had a nice rhythm and made five good birdies, from a tap-in, one metre, to five metres in length.”
Rocca, who defeated Tiger Woods in their 1997 Ryder Cup singles match at Valderrama, birdied the first, third, fifth, 17th and 18th holes. The only blemishes came with bogeys at the fourth and 16th.
“I am happy to be leading, but I will be happier to be leading on Sunday afternoon,” said Rocca as he got down to some more putting practice afterwards, having felt he missed three makeable birdie opportunities during his round.
Just one shot back from Rocca, John Chillas, the 56 year old from Aberdeen, fired two birdies on the first two holes and then recorded 15 consecutive pars before dropping a shot at the 17th. However, he rallied when he holed a 10 feet birdie putt on the 18th hole after a fine wedge approach.
Chillas said: “I worked on my game during the break between the English Seniors Open at St Mellion and coming here, and I’m pleased with the way I played. Woburn’s playing a little softer and longer than it has in the past, so you know the ball is not going to shoot off the fairways.
“I drove the ball nicely and just played very steady golf; I found the fairways and greens. It’s not a day to hit the ball close to the flags, as the wind is making it a bit fiddly, but my long-putting was good. I’m pleased I’m in with a chance and we’ll see what happens over the weekend.”
Defending champion Carl Mason recovered from what he admitted was a bad start to shoot 71. After going out in 37 strokes, the 54 year old came back in 34, three under par.
He said: “I was pleased with that because I started badly, with two bogeys. For some reason I couldn’t focus on the job today. I felt the same during the pro-am, but thought it was just because it was a pro-am, so it’s a strange feeling to have at a course I love and where I’m defending.”
Mason, runner-up at The Midas English Senior Open at St Mellion International Hotel, Golf and Country Club a fortnight ago before the European Seniors Tour schedule took a break, added: “When you have an enforced break, maybe you lose a little bit of momentum.”
Neverthless, Mason was delighted with his back nine holes and birdies on holes 11, 13 and 14, the latter coming after a manufactured low five iron from the trees to a matter of feet “for a super four,” said the 16 time Seniors Tour winner, who can become the richest golfer in Seniors Tour history should he retain his title.
Fellow Englishman, Andrew Murray, holed a 60-yard pitch to preserve his par at the 537 yards par five 14th hole, in his round of 72. He had reached three under par through 12 holes, but three bogeys on the closing stretch derailed his score. He said: “I need to play well for 18 holes rather than for 15.”
Having both been tied for the lead with Rocca at one point, Australia’s David Good, who shot 70, and England’s Martin Poxon, who shot 72, came off the course frustrated after dropping shots on the closing holes.
Poxon had a nightmare triple bogey seven on the 17th while Good said: “I three-putted 16 and hit my three wood into the trees on the last, so had to chip out and made a bogey. It’s disappointing, as I was going really well and was four under until the 16th, but I’m in contention and it’s a lot better than I have been doing.”