In-form Carl Mason advanced his bid for a fourth European Seniors Tour win in 2007 after shooting an opening round of five under par 67 to co-lead the PGA Seniors Championship with Canada’s Bruce Heuchan at The Stoke-by-Nayland Club, where defending champion Sam Torrance shot a battling 70 to stay in the hunt for a third consecutive PGA victory.
Mason and Heuchan lead in Suffolk by one shot from a group of three players – America’s Peter Teravainen, England’s Bob Cameron and Jim Rhodes, all of whom shot 68. Italy’s Costantino Rocca, seeking to add the Senior PGA title to the PGA Championship he won in 1996 at Wentworth Club, is among the eight players on three under par after a 69.
During a day of slow play and rounds in excess of five hours over the Gainsborough Course, Mason admitted he had to battle to stay patient and post his fine score, which included six birdies and an eagle.
The 54 year old, who recently became the leading all time career money winner on the European Seniors Tour when he retained the European Senior Masters at Woburn last weekend, is seeking his 18th senior title in less than five years competing on the senior circuit.
However, he needed a stroke of brilliance to recharge his challenge. Having gone out in 33, a spectacular eagle on the 14th hole – Mason holed his pitch shot from 15 yards short of the 512-yard par five green – helped him recover from his bogey-bogey start to the back nine and, when he birdied 15 and 17, he joined Heuchan at the top of the leaderboard.
Mason said: “I’m very pleased, because it felt like we were out there forever, especially on that back nine. It was very slow and there were so many rulings we had to call the referee for. However, I stayed patient and the good form continues to roll on, so it’s a very pleasing start. I didn’t play that great but I putted well, and the greens are rolling beautifully.”
Heuchan shot seven birdies in his opening round of the 72-hole tournament, which is being contested for the 51st time.
The 2003 European Seniors Tour qualifying school winner went out in 32 after birdies at holes one, three, five and seven, before firing two more, on holes ten, 12 and 14. Bogeys on the 13th and 18th proved to be the only blemishes on his card.
Heuchan, who turns 54 next week, said: “The greens are the best we’ve putted on so far this year – they’re very consistent and the sort of greens I grew up on playing in Ontario.
“I made some putts early on and that got me going and I managed to keep it up. It’s not really a course you can attack or be aggressive on – you still have to plot your way round and can’t afford to miss too many greens. When the greens are this smooth and rolling so well, it feels good.
“This is a big title – it’s a little different as we’ve got four rounds instead of three – and of course, you like to be in there challenging. It’s what we play the game for. Play good golf and the results take care of themselves.”
However, he revealed a pre-tournament tune-up paid dividends. “I got some good help on Tuesday on the range. A fellow professional and friend helped me on my address at set-up and being properly set-up from the word go, and that’s what I was trying to do today.
“I’ve been struggling this year. I’ve had a few good scores, but I need to finish in the top 30 in the Order of Merit. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a good start.”
England’s Bob Cameron bogeyed the last but was still delighted with his opening score. Fresh from his best result of the season, his third place finish at the European Senior Masters at Woburn Golf Club, Cameron continued where he left off on Sunday, firing another four under par 68.
He said: “I’m just continuing to putt well. I had to go back and hit three off the tee on the tenth, but holed a great putt with about six feet of break for a bogey, and that kept my momentum going. When you go back to hit three off the tee, it normally ruins your card.”
Defending champion, Scotland’s Sam Torrance, who is trying to emulate Ireland’s Christy O’Connor and England’s Neil Coles as a triple PGA Seniors Championship winner in consecutive years, got off to a fine start, birdieing two of the first four holes. However, he dropped shots at holes eight, nine and ten, only to recover with consecutive birdies on holes 14 and 15, and a further one on 17.
He said: “It was a battling round but one I’ll take. I’m only three shots back. I struggled a bit around the turn. I pulled my tee-shots on eight and nine into the trees and three-putted ten, but got it back over the closing holes. The course is playing perfect for me – the fairways are firm but the greens are playing lovely and soft, so I’ve no problems with that. It’s if it’s hard and fast all over that it doesn’t suit me.”
Debutant Mike Williams, from Bulawaro, Zimbabwe, only gained entry to the tournament on Tuesday following his successful finish inside the top 30 at pre-qualifying, but carded a three under par 69.
Out in 36 and back in 33, the 51 year old was delighted with his round and felt it could have been even better, but for a few missed short putts.
Williams, who turned professional aged 36 and was for seven years a club professional in Johannesburg before relocating to England last year, recorded birdies at holes two, 12, 13, 16 and 18 to offset two bogeys, on holes seven and ten.
He said: “This is the first tournament I have played this year. I was very nervous yesterday at pre-qualifying and it was the first time I’d played the course. I shot 76 to qualify, so to beat that by seven shots today is very pleasing. I played very solidly. I missed from two and three feet on seven and nine, but then I hit some good putts on the back nine, and holed two 20 footers.”
England’s David J Russell also carded a 69. He said: “I lost a bit of confidence after my final round at St Mellion, and I’ve been trying to get it back, so today is much better. I holed a bunker shot and that turned things around for me, and then I hit good shots when I needed to.”
Costantino Rocca was another pleased with his 69. Having enjoyed a drop of red wine at the gala dinner on Wednesday night, Rocca enjoyed the taste of red once more, as he posted five red numbers on his card. Out in 32, following birdies at the second, third, seventh and eighth holes, he then suffered a nightmare double bogey six on the signature 10th hole after his three wood tee shot found the water.
However, it was the only blip, as he duly rattled off five straight pars before a birdie on the 16th, while he superbly got up and down after missing the 18th green, holing a slippery 12 feet putt down the slope.
He said: “It is a good start, not bad. I was four under after nine and messed up one hole and the mistake cost me. A shame. I was hitting the ball very close to the flags, but missed three or four chances on the back nine. The putt on 18 was a good one though, and it’s a good start.”
Rocca is bidding to become only the fifth player to add the PGA Seniors title to the PGA Championship he won in 1996 at Wentworth Club. The others to achieve that feat were golfing greats Dai Rees, Brian Huggett, Ken Bousfield and Neil Coles.
Zimbabwe's Denis Watson, winner of the US Senior PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May, is another looking for a unique double PGA success.
Watson, who won in America on the Champions Tour last week after a seven way play-off at Seattle in a field that included Mark O’Meara, Tom Kite, Craig Stadler and Ben Crenshaw, and making his first appearance at Stoke-by-Nayland, shot a 70.
He said: “I played a bit scrappy and didn’t drive the ball well. I feel I kind of left it out there – I didn’t make a birdie on the par fives and that’s not good on a course like this – but I’m a bit tired and jet-lagged after flying in from Los Angeles. Still, I’m in contention and it's nice to be here playing in England.”