It might not quite be classed as local knowledge just yet, but a growing awareness and an appreciation of links golf helped American Mike Cunning into the lead after the first round of The Ryder Cup Wales Seniors Open at Royal Porthcawl.
The 51 year old from Phoenix took advantage of near perfect conditions at the iconic south Wales venue to post a superb seven under par 65 which gave him a one shot lead over former Ryder Cup Italian Costantino Rocca with Australian Peter Fowler and Gordon Brand Jnr of Scotland a further shot adrift in third.
Cunning played in last year’s tournament but could do no better than 75 in any of his three rounds on his way to a share of lowly 53rd place. But he stored away the information gained on how to play links golf and brought it out to good use on his return this week.
“Everything was new to me last year and so to be able to come back and play it again the second time around, you get a little bit more familiar as you go along,” said Cunning, who claimed his maiden European Senior Tour title in last season’s Aberdeen Brunei Senior Masters.
“I only play links golf when I’m over here. We don’t really have any links courses back home. There are a few up in Oregon but I haven’t really been up there. Last year was all a new experience for me. I played the Dunhill as well a lot of years ago but that wasn’t like playing here.
“You have to plot your way around, you just can’t go bashing the ball out there like you do on some of the courses we play. But it’s a neat form of golf, it’s different.”
Certainly, if Cunning continues to produce the form he showed in the first round – especially on the back nine which he conquered in 31 blows with birdies at the tenth, 12th, 14th, 17th and 18th, he will be a hard man to catch.
Leading the chase at present, Costantino Rocca was delighted with his flawless 66 but more delighted with the fact he was playing at all having arrived in Wales in such pain from a back injury that he considered withdrawing from the tournament altogether.
“I’ve been having physio and am taking some anti-inflammatory tablets as well as the odd glass of red wine which never does any harm,” said the Italian who memorably beat Tiger Woods in the singles during Europe’s Ryder Cup victory at Valderrama in 1997.
“The other good thing is that, because my back is the way it is, I am not forcing my shots, I am just trying to keep an easy rhythm and good timing,” added Rocca who, like Cunning, birdied both the closing holes. “I hit some good ones and holed some good putts too so it wasn’t bad.”
Another man with back issues is Peter Fowler who showed he is on the way back after eight months out of action following two operations with a flawless 67 while the man who shares third with the Australian, Gordon Brand Jnr, could not have found a more inappropriate word than flawless to describe his extraordinary 67.
The Scot, who won the Coral Classic at Royal Porthcawl on The European Tour in 1982, posted three bogeys in his first nine holes but still managed to reach the turn in three under par 33 thanks to four birdies and an eagle three at the eighth, while he carded another eagle three at the 12th.
“That’s links golf for you I suppose and, as they say, there are no pictures on the scorecard,” he said. “The two eagles helped my cause. At the eighth I hit three wood, three wood to about 20 feet and knocked it in and on the 12th I hit a really good drive there, a fantastic five wood onto about 25 feet and holed that one as well which was nice. I didn’t play that great but I hit the right shots at the right time and made a few putts.”
Elsewhere, the local crowds who came to roar on Ian Woosnam did not have their vocal chords tested too much as the former Ryder Cup Captain could only manage a three over par 75 although he did raise a cheer at the 18th when he chipped in from the right of the green for what was only his second birdie of the day.
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