SOUTH Africa proved a happy hunting ground for Scottish golfers yesterday as Alastair Forsyth and Craig Lee both made promising starts in this week’s European Tour event at the same time as Bradley Neil was closing in on one of the Rainbow Nation’s top amateur titles.
Taking up where Stephen Gallacher left off in making an historic defence of the Dubai Desert Classic last Sunday, Forsyth and Lee both carded seven-under-par opening rounds in the Joburg Open to figure in a four-way tie for the lead at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club.
Along with Italian Edoardo Molinari and home hope Justin Walters, Forsyth shot a 64 on the West Course while Lee’s 65 was the day’s best effort on the slightly tougher East Course. It restored the spring to his step after missing the cut in Dubai.
“I’ve played really nice golf for that, so I’m delighted with the score I’ve managed to put together,” said Lee, who dropped his only shot of the day after finding sand with his approach at the 17th but bounced back to birdie the last.
“I hit a lot of shots in to about 15 feet today and I didn’t hole that many of those putts, but then on the back I managed to knock in a few putts, so a game of two nines today.
“It’s really hard to figure out where you are in the field with two golf courses, but with the East being slightly tougher I feel like I’m in a good position. If we can keep the same level of golf, then we might be able to separate ourselves from the bunch.”
Lee led going into the final round of the Abu Dhabi Championship, the opening leg of the European Tour last month, only to see his title challenge come off the rails in the company of Phil Mickelson.
The 36-year-old isn’t the type to dwell on disappointments, though, and is determined to keep knocking on the door, having come perilously close to seeing it open – he also lost to Thomas Bjorn in a play-off for the European Masters in Switzerland last September.
“I don’t normally play well at all in South Africa, my record here is actually pretty pathetic,” added the Stirling man after outscoring title favourite Charl Schwartzel by four shots.
“It’s probably a course that should have suited me in the past, because my strength has always been ball striking. I’ve never played that great around here, but my game has gotten slightly better over the years.”
Forsyth, who failed to secure any starts in the Gulf Swing after regaining his card through the Qualifying School at the end of last year, made his score by storming to the turn in 30 before adding one more birdie and coming home in a flawless effort.
A two-times Tour winner, he spent some time in preparing for this event with Neil and the other Scottish Golf Union squad members currently out in South Africa to both compete and practise under the watchful eye of national coach Ian Rae. He also works with Forsyth so it proved a timely get-together for the Paisley man.
“The front nine was great – I did everything very well on it,” said Forsyth. “Then, on the back nine, I was steady without doing anything great. I had a good few days with Ian Rae and the SGU squad here last week. I was really impressed with the youngsters in the squad and it was a very beneficial few days for me.”
In addition to a top prize of just £170,000, also up for grabs in this event are three places in this summer’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool through the new Qualifying Series for the game’s oldest major.
“I didn’t know about them until I met a couple of R&A folk this morning,” admitted Forsyth, whose most recent appearance in the event was at Carnoustie seven years ago.
“The chance to secure one of them, though, is something that would only really come into my thoughts on Sunday.”
Yet to tee up in any of the four majors, Lee is hoping to land “lucky” this weekend after the R&A’s decision to freshen up their qualifying process this year. “It’s nice to have qualifiers throughout the year and not just geared up to that 36-hole sprint that most qualifiers are,” said the Stirling man. “Hopefully we can keep the game up and take one of those spots.”
Neil, meanwhile, is just 18 holes away from getting his season off to a flying start after the Blairgowrie teenager moved into the lead after the third round of the South African Amateur Open Stroke-Play Championship at Benoni Country Club.
One behind overnight leader Dermot McElroy, the Scottish Boys’ champion reversed that position after a foot-perfect five-under-par 67 moved him to 13-under. “Any time you can finish a round with a clean card, you’ve had a great day,” admitted the 18-year-old, who is bidding to add to South African successes recorded by compatriots Michael Stewart, David Law and Brian Soutar in recent years.
At the other end of the age ladder, Tartan Tour stalwart Bob Arnott already has something to celebrate in 2014 after he secured a conditional card on the European Senior Tour through finishing joint-11th in the Qualifying School at the Pestana Resort in Portugal.
Elsewhere, Pamela Pretswell, lying joint-26th after a level-par 72, was the leading Scot at the end of day one in the Volvik RACV Ladies Masters on Australia’s Gold Coast.