A FORMER Thai paratrooper is out in front, with two South African big guns leading the chase, but four members of golf’s Tartan Army are tucked in nicely behind them after the opening round of the £1.6 million Volvo Golf Champions.
On a day when the Scottish contingent felt at home under a grey sky – the heavens opened in mid-afternoon when the strong southerly breeze started to drop – Paul Lawrie, Richie Ramsay and Scott Jamieson all carded three-under-par 69s to sit joint fourth while Colin Montgomerie is also in the top 15 after his 72.
Pride of place in the opening 2013 salvo on the European Tour undoubtedly went to Thongchai Jaidee, who reaped a rich reward from a last-minute decision to swap a rescue club in his bag for a 3-iron as he carved out a hugely-impressive 65 at the tight Durban Country Club.
Five ahead of the select 33-man field at one point, the 43-year-old had to settle for a three-shot cushion after Springbok duo Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen came in late in the day with matching 68s but it was still a good day’s work for Jaidee and the same applied to those Scots trying to get the new season off to flying starts.
In Jamieson’s case, he’s bidding to complete a quickfire Durban double, having already won the Nelson Mandela Championship, the opening event of the 2013 campaign, even though it was played last month at Royal Durban, and the 29-year-old from East Kilbride was pleased with his start despite the fact it could easily have been a shot or two better.
After dropping a shot at the first, where he came up short with his approach after being faced with the wind coming from the opposite direction than it had been blowing in the practice rounds, he covered the next 12 holes in five-under and was Jaidee’s closest challenger with three holes to play.
At the 16th, however, Jamieson ran up a double-bogey 6 after having to stand in a bunker to attempt a chip from just outside it. It ended up in the sand, with Jamieson revealing after signing for his card that he’d called a penalty on himself due to the fact he felt he’d committed a double-hit.
“I looked at the TV footage afterwards,” he told The Scotsman. “Unfortunately, it didn’t show it as clear as we needed it to and, though I wasn’t entirely sure myself, it felt like a double hit.”
A birdie at the last, where he rolled in a 25-footer, repaired some of the damage. “It could have been better but I’ll take it,” he added. “I was pretty good from tee to green, giving myself good chances and taking most of them.”
Playing together, Lawrie and Montgomerie endured an unusual delay on the first green when they discovered the pin was stuck in the hole. After Lawrie’s attempt to free it with a sharp dunt of his putter failed, Montgomerie’s caddie, Graeme Heinrich, had a go but only succeeded in pulling the flag and the cup out together and damaging the edge of the hole.
A greenkeeper had to be called to repair it before they were able to continue, the banter between the two Scots as they waited for around ten minutes including Montgomerie suggesting to him to “make it bigger”.
As the eight-tims European No 1 noted to his playing partner when they shook hands at the end of the round, Lawrie enjoyed the most success on the greens, the majority of his putts dropping on the back nine as he recovered from a double-bogey 7 at the eighth by coming home in 31, five-under.
“I only hit two poor shots all day and they were both on the same hole,” reported the Aberdonian. “Apart from those two shots, I was never in trouble.” Lawrie almost celebrated the Tour’s first hole-in-one of 2013, hitting the cup with his tee shot at the 15th, where the prize up for grabs this week is an excavator.
“It’s a new Volvo I could do with but, if they had wanted to give me a digger, then I’ll take a digger,” he said with a hearty chuckle. “I think we’d have a use for it when I’m getting a new short game area built at my golf centre in Aberdeen.”
On the incident at the first, Lawrie added: “I’ve never seen that before. When Graeme gave it a bit of a yank the whole thing came out, damaging the hole in the process. It was a bit of a strange start.”
The bighlight of a rollercoaster round for Montgomerie was an eagle-3 at the third, where the 49-year-old hit a 7-iron second shot from 200 yards to a foot. Later, at the same hole, big-hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts boomed a drive more than 400 yards to leave Els, no slouch himself, gobsmacked.
“It was from a different zip code,” said the Open champion. “It was the first time I’ve played with him and I loved it. I’ve played wirth Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson as well and it’s quite exciting when these guys take their driver out.”
Jaidee, who is playing in South Africa for the first time and only had one practice round after arriving here at tea time on Tuesday, only used his driver twice yesterday, using that 3-iron in particular to great effect as he plotted his way around in the testing wind. “It was a bit like playing a links course in Scotland today,” said the leader.