A superb putting display helped unheralded Canadian Graham Gunn grab the lead on the opening day of the inaugural Sicilian Senior Open on the European Senior Tour.
On only his fifth appearance of the season, Gunn outshone some of the Senior Tour’s leading lights – including home hero Costantino Rocca and all-time leading career money winner Carl Mason of England – with a four under par round of 68 to lead by two strokes from Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Spaniard Domingo Hospital.
Incredibly, Gunn needed just 24 putts at Il Picciolo Golf Club, on the holiday island of Sicily, where driving rain rendered low scoring doubly difficult. His lead would have been even more commanding were it not for a double bogey at the par three eighth, where he lost his ball after overclubbing.
The only other blemish in a round which included seven birdies came at the fiendishly tough 11th hole, which at 472 yards in length did not see a birdie all day.
Gunn, who is in need of a big week in order to upgrade his conditional card for next season, said: “I kept the ball in play and putted well, which is usually a pretty good combination! I holed a birdie putt from about 25 feet on the second and then from even longer on the next, so that got the ball rolling nicely. I got a little unlucky on the eighth – my ball only just ran through the back of the green, and when we got there we couldn’t find it. I also bogeyed the 11th – but that’s a very tough hole, which was really playing its full length today.
“It was tough going in the conditions, but in some ways the rain actually helped at times, because the ball isn’t running too far off the fairways. If the fairways were hard, you could end up way into the trees. Fortunately I drove the ball really well today, and then when I did get in trouble off the tee, more often than not my putter rescued me. So it was a good day.”
Carbonetti also credited a hot putter – and the help of his caddie, a local lady named Cecilia – for his round of 70.
By his own admission the Argentine, currently 49th on the Senior Tour Order of Merit and without a top ten finish all season, was the recipient of some good fortune, having found his ball after wayward drives at the 12th and 17th holes.
And Carbonetti also acknowledged that he was fortunate to have Cecilia carrying his clubs, as her local knowledge on the greens meant he needed just 30 putts – at least five less than in an average round.
He said: “I was only really in trouble on three holes, and managed to save par on two of them. So I’m very happy with my round today, because it was so tough in the rain. The key was my putting – normally I have at least 35 or 36 putts in a round, so to have 30 was fantastic.
“I started off well with a birdie putt from nine feet on the first, and after that my confidence just grew. Many times my confidence is low out on the course, but after my good start today it was very high. My caddie Cecilia was also a very big help on the greens – she knows this course very well, so I have to say a big thanks to her.
“My only bogey of the day came at the 11th, but it’s playing like a par five. I still had 230 yards to go with my second shot, so I came up short of the green and couldn’t get up and down. But overall I was very pleased with my day – I just hope the weather tomorrow will be a bit better.”
Another player praying for sunnier skies ahead is Hospital, who after a bright start to his Senior Tour career has found the going rather tougher in recent times.
The Spaniard flew out of the blocks with three successive birdies to reach the turn in 33, but dropped two shots on the way home to join Carbonetti on two under par.
He said: “It was a great start with a birdie from three metres on the first, then I put it close on the next two. It seemed easy at that point, but I had to wait until the 17th for my next birdie! All my bogeys were three putts, so I didn’t make many mistakes, which is important on a tough course like this. I’m pleased, because my season overall has been very disappointing. I can’t wait for it to finish, to tell the truth. I just hope next year will be better – if not, I will have to think about hanging my clubs up!”
Another player who was not at his fluent best was Andrew Oldcorn, but the Scot still ground his way to a round of 71.
The Senior Tour rookie from Edinburgh, currently seventh on the Order of Merit, was pleased to be in with a chance of claiming his maiden title since turning 50 earlier in the year, after losing focus late in his round.
He said: “I could’ve easily played myself out of the tournament, so I’m pleased I didn’t. [Playing partner] Ross Drummond probably didn’t play any worse than me and ended up shooting a 77, so all in all it could’ve been a lot worse.
“It was only really towards the end of my round that I started to hit one or two loose shots, and that was probably due to a bit of tiredness as much as anything else. On the 16th green I lost my concentration and ended up three putting, so having got to two under I’m maybe a little bit disappointed to have finished on one under. But if you’d offered me that at the start of the day, I probably would’ve taken it.
“The course is so tight, a lot of the time you tend to guide your shots instead of committing fully to them. Off the tee it’s extremely demanding, and doubly so in the conditions. So it’s no surprise that nobody’s shot a low one today.”
Oldcorn’s compatriot Martin Gray also had to settle for a round of 71 after his day ended on a sour note with a double bogey seven at the last hole.
Gray was joined on one under by England’s Roger Chapman, who was delighted with his return to form after some erratic displays with the driver in recent weeks.
Chapman finished in the top 12 in his first five tournaments, but has since slipped down the Rankings after a run of indifferent results.
The highlight of Chapman’s round was a rare eagle on the ninth hole, where he pitched his three iron to 25 feet and rolled in the putt.
He said: “It was a tough day – I’m glad to get in. The wind kept coming in waves – just when you thought it might ease up, it came down just as hard again. So I was pleased to get it round in 71, because it’s a tough course made even tougher in the conditions. It’s not particularly long but it’s playing quite long, because not only was it wet but you can’t really use your driver – I only pulled it out on the seventh, and then put it back in my bag for the rest of the round! But there’s definitely a decent score out there if the conditions are more favourable, so hopefully the forecast is better for tomorrow and we can have a better day.”
Despite two sixes on his card Spaniard Juan Quiros, who finished fourth on home soil at last week’s Benhavis Senior Masters, also signed for a one under par round of 71.
Quiros carded five birdies, but gave shots back with bogeys at the sixth and 11th holes and a double bogey at the 16th.
Northern Ireland’s Jimmy Heggarty, with three birdies, and Chile’s Angel Fernandez with four, made it a six way tie for fourth place.
Earlier in the day Mason, chasing his 24th Senior Tour title to overtake his compatriot Tommy Horton’s record haul, finished on one over par after an up and down round of 73.
Mason reached the turn in 38 after a front nine which was blighted by bogeys at the sixth and eighth holes and a double bogey at the seventh, but recovered on the way in with a one under par 35 courtesy of birdies at the tenth and 15th holes.
He said: “The course is tough enough anyway, but in the rain it was very tough indeed. Anyone who shoots below par today in those conditions has played very well. So I was actually pleased with a 73 in the end, because it looked at one point as though I was going to run up a pretty big score.”