Duncan Stewart maintained his recent improved form to take pride of place on a successful day for all but one player in a six-strong Scottish contingent in the first round of the Tshwane Open.
Stewart joined Scott Henry, Scott Jamieson, Richie Ramsay and Marc Warren in getting off to promising starts at Pretoria Country Club, where the odd man out for once in South Africa was David Drysdale.
While he had to settle for a 72 after letting four shots slip away in three holes on his back nine, Stewart opened with a five-under-par 66 to sit just one shot off the lead, held by Frenchman Gregory Havret, South African Haydn Porteous and Swede Alexander Bjork. Henry and Jamieson are a shot further back after coming in with afternoon 67s, adding to the Saltires already on the leaderboard following Ramsay and Warren backing up Stewart’s effort with equally encouraging 68s.
Stewart, a winner on the Challenge Tour last year as he graduated to the main circuit, missed the cut in his first five events on this season’s European Tour before picking up money in both the Perth Super 6 then last week’s Joburg Open.
Starting at the 10th, he birdied the 12th, 14th, 17th and 18th to be out in 32 before opening up a two-shot lead following back-to-back gains at the fourth and fifth. He then missed a good birdie chance at the short eighth before dropping his only shot of the day at his closing hole.
“It’s a tricky course and the rough is really thick, so you’ve got to keep it on the fairway,” said Stewart afterwards. “A couple of times I didn’t hit it on the fairway, I got lucky and still had a shot to the green. The last hole was the result of a poor shot, but overall I gave myself quite a lot of chances and took a few of them as well.
“Everything was pretty good today. You had to keep it on the fairway, regardless of what club you were hitting off the tee. The short game was good and I holed out very well. I missed a few chances, but overall I putted very well and any time you shoot five-under you can’t complain.”
Henry shrugged off six straight cuts to hand himself a much-needed confidence boost as he kept the damaging scores that have been costing him off his card. He was also out in four-under after starting at the 10th, dropped a shot at the sixth before finishing with a birdie.
Jamieson, whose sole European Tour success came in South Africa when he won the curtailed Nelson Mandela Championship in 2013, bettered that as he signed off birdie-birdie playing the course the same way.
Ramsay, who also started at the 10th, cancelled out an early birdie with a double-bogey 7 at the 12th before picking up five shots in eight holes. “I hit lots of fairways – my swing feels really good – and I putted well,” said the Aberdonian. “(Daughter) Olivia is one today so I’m missing her a lot, but I’ve just got to keep my focus on the golf to take care of that.”
Warren made his score by birdieing four of his last five holes on a day when Havret, a former Scottish Open champion, secured a share of the lead by storming to the turn in 29, six-under-par. Home hope Porteous was faultless in his opening salvo, which was also delivered in the morning, before Bjork made it a three-way tie at the top with a bogey-free afternoon effort.
Local hero George Coetzee opened with a 68 while another South African, Justin Walters, had Dunbar’s Stephen Neilson on his bag as he matched Stewart’s 66.