Bradley Neil got his 2018 campaign off to a “very positive start” by recording his best score so far as a European Tour player to sit close to the lead after the first round of the BMW South African Open.
The 21-year-old from Blairgowrie carded an eagle and six birdies in an opening five-under-par 67 at Glendower Golf Club to lie joint-fourth, two shots behind home favourite Branden Grace and American Chase Koepka.
Grace, the world No 30, had three eagles as he made an ominous start, having produced a brilliant performance to win the Nedbank Challenge in November in his last outing on South African soil.
“I can’t remember when, or if, I’ve ever made three eagles in a round but it was fun,” said the 29-year-old, who became the first player in a men’s major to card a 62 in the third round of last year’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
“I was a little bit rusty with some of the wedge shots but, all in all, very pleased with the outcome and I think I pretty much got the most out of that round. It’s a great start to 2018 and it’s always nice to play back in South Africa.”
While all three of Grace’s eagles came at par-5s – the second, eighth and 15th – Neil made his at the par-4 tenth, where he holed a wedge with his approach at the 477-yard hole. That proved the perfect way for the 2014 Amateur champion to bounce back after taking a double-bogey 6 at the previous hole.
“I was really happy with my warm up and hit some lovely approach shots, mainly into par-5s,” he told The Scotsman afterwards.
“I had 12ft, 6ft and 20ft for eagles on par-5s, which all badly lipped out. Then my wedge spun back into the water on nine, so holing my wedge on ten was a bit of justice. I was in the left semi, having to hit a biggish draw, which landed long right of the flag and spun in.”
Neil, who graduated from the Challenge Tour last season, started his career on the main European circuit by making the cut in the Hong Kong Open in November before suffering an early exit in both the Mauritius Open and Joburg Open just before Christmas.
“This is obviously a very positive start to 2018,” he added. “It’s the first round of the year, so there’s obviously a couple of improvements to make but overall I’m happy. I definitely left a lot of shots out there today, so hopefully I can keep up this kind of play. The time I took off in the winter to rest and enjoy the time with my family, along with the specific work I did with my coach, Kevin Hale, has obviously helped.”
On a day when Koepka, the younger brother of US Open champion Brooks, set the clubhouse target after an effort containing seven birdies, David Drysdale was next best among four Scots in the field, finishing birdie-birdie for a level-par 72 to sit joint 60th.
Given that he was four over after his opening three holes, Marc Warren did well to salvage a 73 but Johannesburgbased Doug McGuigan is staring an early exit in the face after he limped home in 42 for a 79.
Englishman Chris Paisley is a shot off the pace after a 66, but compatriot Graeme Storm, the defending champion, is in danger of missing the cut after he had to settle for a 75, the same score posted by 2016 Ryder Cup player Chris Wood.
Jamie Donaldson, Europe’s Ryder Cup match-winner against the Americans at Gleneagles four years ago, claimed the circuit’s first hole-in-one in 2018 courtesy of a 9-iron at the 152-yard 14th hole. That helped him to a 70, matched by the champion three years ago, Andy Sullivan.