MICHAEL HOEY had a red-hot finish while Darren Clarke was left peppering by a slip-up on 18, yet both Ulster aces performed brightly enough on the first day of the Africa Open to suggest either could go one better than last year’s tie for second place in East London.
Former Walker Cup star Hoey (30), who clinched his maiden European Tour victory at April’s Portuguese Open, secured Irish bragging rights as three birdies in the final four holes of his opening 68 earned him a share of 10th on five-under par, just two strokes off the tournament lead.
Despite that infuriating bogey five at the last, Clarke was no less impressive than his fellow countryman as he played the back nine at East London in fourunder par, including a sparkling string of five birdies in seven holes.
It took the 40-year-old Ulsterman nine holes to rediscover his rhythm but once he did, Clarke swung with the authority and confidence of old and, importantly, putted well as he compiled a promising first-round 69.
Clarke’s overriding ambition is to regain his place on the European Ryder Cup team this year. Though he had just three top-10 finishes on the European Tour in 2009, all of them were achieved in the latter half of the year and he looks in the right form and physical condition to complete his renaissance in the new season.
The bogey at the last came right out of the blue, especially after such a sweet birdie two at 17, where Clarke hit a lovely tee shot over the flag and holed out from 20 feet.
After pulling his final tee shot left of the fairway, Clarke found his ball lying awkwardly on a downslope. However, he still should have found the green with little more than a wedge in his hand. Instead, his ball hopped off the putting surface, into a difficult spot in a greenside bunker and he failed to get up and down for par.
Just 6,770 yards long and with five makeable par fives, East London relies on sea breezes for protection but in yesterday’s benign conditions, it was at the mercy of the professionals.
Five players shared the lead on sevenunder, including Richard Sterne (28), the five-times European Tour-winner from South Africa, who showed just how well he knows his way around this classy little track by shooting a course-record 61 in last year’s tournament.
Dane Mark Haastrup, Sweden’s Patrik Sjoland and two of Sterne’s fellow countrymen, the big-hitting ‘Titch’ Moore and 30-year-old Trevor Fisher Junior, shared his lead and the limelight.
Fisher played with Anton Haig and Dubliner Niall Kearney (21), who stoutly refused to let a stomach bug spoil his pro debut on the European Tour, which came courtesy of a sponsor’s invite. Though vomiting Wednesday night and into yesterday morning, Kearney still posted a level-par 73 in the afternoon.
Kearney, who just missed his card at Q-School in November, completed his first day’s work as a pro with a touch of class, bouncing back from a bogey on his penultimate hole, the seventh, with a neat birdie three at eight, where he took 2-iron off the tee, hit a lovely 5-iron to 12 feet and drained the putt.
“I felt pretty weak before heading out and, physically, I was glad to get through it,” said Kearney last night.
His stomach ailment apart, Kearney felt comfortable in the company of professionals. “The standard didn’t feel any different to what I’d been used to in amateur golf. All in all, I’d an enjoyable day with a couple of good guys.”
While Kearney’s dad Joe caddied for him for the first time yesterday, Simon Thornton teed it up in East London simply to satisfy the dying wish of his father Steve, who passed away last Saturday in Yorkshire.
Thornton (32), a Huddersfield native who played for Ireland after serving his time as an assistant pro at Royal Co Down, fulfilled a lifetime ambition when he won his Tour card at Q-School.
Yet plans of playing the Africa Open were forgotten when his dad fell ill. “It was pretty sudden and unexpected. He’d a stroke a couple of days after Christmas and a heart attack in the hospital,” Thornton explained.
“He couldn’t talk at all in hospital, just squeeze your hand. We think he could hear and understand but he couldn’t do anything except indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
“I asked him whether I should go to South Africa and he squeezed my hand to say ‘yes’. So I’m here for that more so than for the sake of the golf.”
Four-over through three holes of his opening round after a double-bogey six at his first, the ninth hole, followed by bogeys at 10 and 11, Thornton fought back for a one-over par 74. Gary Murphy, meanwhile, recovered with birdies at 15 and 16 to sign for a 75.