While Irish eyes were certainly smiling – Paul Dunne shot a best-of-the-day 64 to lead from a group that included compatriot Padraig Harrington – the two players flying the Saltire in this week’s $7 million Turkish Airlines Open also had reason to be cheerful at the end of their first rounds at Regnum Carya in Belek.
On his 44th birthday, Stephen Gallacher bounced back from finding water with his opening tee shot at the par-4 11th to break par with a one-under 70, which Russell Knox later matched after transforming his day with a burst of three birdies on the trot on the back nine in idyllic conditions on the Mediterranean coast.
“Maybe the best round of the season in the end,” declared Knox, who is making his debut in this Rolex Series event after claiming the whopping top prize in the Irish Open, another of those tournaments, back in the summer, of his effort. “It was just awful early on.”
As almost everyone else in the 78-strong field seemed to be making birdies, the 33-year-old Invernesian didn’t even have a sniff of one in his first 12 holes. “I made a great bogey on ten with a good up and down and made a nice putt for par on 12 after playing like the worst hole of my life,” he added.
“I was coming down that hole thinking ‘I’m quitting golf’. I was miles right, hack out, chunk hook a hybrid and then hit a decent shot and a good putt. After that, I hit an okay drive on 13 and then hit it to 12 feet.”
In went that putt, as did ten-footers at the next two holes to take him from two-over to one-under, where he finished thanks to a great par save from 25 feet at the 17th.
“It’s funny when you do that. The ball goes in the hole much easier,” said Knox, smiling, as he finished the day sitting in a share of 32nd spot. “To shoot under par was unreal. I’ll have a good feeling tonight. I stole something today. If I go on to have three more good days it’s because of this back nine.”
Having gone into the event without a practice round due to a bout of dizziness forcing him to pull out of Wednesday’s pro-am, Gallacher was equally pleased with his opening salvo.
“I just took a reaction to tablets I’m taking for a virus,” said the three-time European Tour winner. “I started to get dizzy and feel sick, so I went to my bed yesterday afternoon. I’m still not right, but I wasn’t dizzy today. When I woke up yesterday, I thought ‘jeez, what’s happening here’ and I knew it wasn’t down to having any bevvy (laughing), so I had to rule that out straight away. Pulling out of the pro-am was a precautionary step, but it meant that I didn’t even hit a shot out on the course. Given the lack of preparation, one-under wasn’t a bad score.”
The pick of three birdies came at the 18th, his eighth hole, where he made light of his tee shot ending up in a “massive divot” by dispatching the next one to five feet. “I didn’t really play well,but I putted nicely as I got a chance to have a couple hours working on that with Phil Kenyon earlier in the week,” he added. “I’ve made a lot of cuts this year but I’d say my putting has been a bit sub-standard. At the same time, I’ve not been hitting it close enough.”
One of Gallacher’s goals this week is to secure a finish that would boost his chances of joining Knox in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in a fortnight’s time. “I’m in next week (the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa) just now and just need a half decent week here to secure that. I’d love to play in Dubai and it would be great if I could cement that this week,” he said.
Dunne, last year’s British Masters winner, made seven birdies in a bogey-free effort. “This is a course that sets up nicely for me,” he admitted after setting the pace from Harrington, as well as the last two champions here – Justin Rose and Thorbjorn Olesen.
Rose, who needs a successful title defence to reclaim the world No 1 spot, produced the shot of the day as he holed out from 139 yards with a wedge for an eagle-2 at the fourth.