Sparkling rounds of 64 saw Australian David Merriman and Thai ace Boonchu Ruangkit grab the lead on the first day of The Aberdeen Brunei Senior Masters presented by The Stapleford Forum, with England’s Roger Chapman in a group of players three shots behind.
Merriman, winner of the Senior Tour Qualifying School in 2006, got off to the perfect start at The Empire Hotel & Country Club in Brunei, hitting his approach shot to the first green to 15 feet and holing the birdie putt.
The man from Sydney, who has a cult online following due to his trick shot repertoire, proved it was no fluke by rattling off another three birdies on the front nine and adding a further three after the turn to sign for a flawless seven under par round of 64.
He said: “I had a couple of lucky breaks today. I ended up in the rough twice and it’s pretty severe – a lot tougher than last year – but I got a nice lie both times, so that really was a lucky break for me.
“But it was my putting that really saw me through today – I think it’s the best I’ve putted in the last 18 months. It helps that the greens are fast and very true. It’s just a great course, the kind of course where you have to use every club in the bag. It’s not a particularly long course or short course – it’s just perfect.
“The weather was perfect too – a bit humid in some of the low areas, where I struggled a bit. But Nick Job and Terry Gale are great guys to play with – they were incredibly supportive throughout the round.
“Tomorrow I’ll just keep doing the same thing. I’ll have a bit to eat now then head up to the range, and just hope that what I’ve got stays with me for tomorrow and Sunday.”
Merriman will be partnered in the second round by Ruangkit, who won the US Champions Tour Qualifying School the same year the Australian won the European Senior Tour equivalent.
Ruangkit, a former kick boxer, won five times on the Asian Tour, including the Thailand Open in 2004 aged 48. The 53 year old has never won on the Senior Tour before, but eight birdies have given him every chance of breaking his duck over the next two days.
Ruangkit said: “The only hole I bogeyed was the 16th, which was annoying. But other than that it was a good round, and I’m very happy with the way I’m playing. Everything was working well. I drove the ball well, and when I got onto the greens my putting was also good. The course is very good, and the greens are so smooth and fast – maybe too fast in places! But hopefully I can play as well again tomorrow.”
Former European Tour champion Chapman leads the chasing pack, having opened with a round of 67. Chapman cancelled out his opening birdie with a bogey at the second hole, but picked up a further four shots to finish on four under par, level with South African Bobby Lincoln, Frankie Minoza of the Philippines and Japan’s Katsuyoshi Tomori.
Minoza, making his first Senior Tour debut, at times struggled to cope in the conditions, saying: “I’m used to playing in hot conditions, but not this humidity. It’s quite difficult to keep your momentum when you have to stop every hole to mop up all the sweat!
“But I still really enjoyed myself, and I’m very impressed with all the other players – seven under par is great scoring.”
Lincoln, who sunk a 30 feet eagle putt on the 12th hole, also struggled with the conditions and his new clubs, which he had to change in order to comply with the new groove regulations introduced at the start of the year.
He said: “I ended up in the rough a couple of times. It was quite tough to get out of there, particularly on the eighth hole, and the new grooves make it even tougher.
“It was also really humid out on the course today, although it helps that they’ve taken the screens off the front of the buggies, so when we were driving between holes at least we were getting a nice breeze.”
Another player to struggle in the heat was Welshman Ian Woosnam, who signed for a one over par round of 72 to sit in a tie for 32nd place.
He said: “I really struggled in the conditions – it was really hard work. I’m not sure whether it’s because of jet lag or the heat, but I felt really shaky when I was out there. The course is good but it’s tough, and if you’re not playing too well it’s very tough because once the ball ends up in the rough, it’s really difficult to get your game back on track. It’s a good test though – I think the more I play it, the better I’ll get.
“The main thing is to build up my confidence. I changed my grip on the last few holes and it seemed to work, so that has boosted my confidence a bit going into tomorrow. I’m not going to practice this afternoon, as this heat just wears you out. But I’m feeling ok about tomorrow – those last few holes have helped.”
One stroke further back is Woosnam’s fellow former Ryder Cup Captain Sam Torrance, who said: “I was actually fairly happy with the way I played, but seven bogeys probably speaks for itself. It was really tough out there in the conditions, not helped by the jet lag and tiredness. But I don’t actually think I played that badly, and hopefully I’ll have a better day tomorrow.”
Torrance was joined on two over par by his fellow Scot Sandy Lyle, whose round was blighted by lost balls on the 11th and 17th holes.
He said: “This course is dangerous. It’s a great course if you’re playing well, but if you miss the fairway and end up in the rough there’s no way back. I was really disappointed with the end of the round, especially as I’d started quite positively.”