Simon Thornton and Colm Moriarty were the only two players in the field to fire bogey-free rounds as they kept their tour dreams alive in the Challenge Tour’s Kazakhstan Open.
Finland’s Antti Ahokas, who famously beat Rory McIlroy in a play-off to capture the 2006 Irish Amateur Open at Portmarnock, hit a six underpar 66 to lead by a shot from County Down based Thornton (67) with Glasson touring pro Moriarty just two strokes off the pace aftera 68.
The top 20 in the Challenge Tour rankings at the end of the season earn European Tour cards and both Moriarty and Thornton can make a major move this week with €64,000 on offer for the winner and at least €20,000 for a place in the top-4.
Moriarty is 52nd in the rankings, just €18,619 behind 20th place with Thornton some €22,123 short in 62nd spot with six events of the season remaining. Niall Kearney, who is 117th in the rankings, opened with a level par 72.
The Kazakhstan Open has been kind to Thornton, who finished tied 21st on his only previous visit to the event. The Ulster based Englishman – who has divided his time between The European and Challenge Tours this term – is likely to concentrate his focus predominantly on the Challenge Tour for the remainder of the season should he walk away with a large share of the €400,000 prize fund.
Thornton said: “I played really well – much better than I had in the practice round. I was very straight off the tee, which you need to be round here, because the rough is so penal.
“The extra length you get out here and the firm fairways help me a lot, because instead of long or mid-irons I’ve got shorter irons into the greens for my approach shots. So I was putting it pretty close, and also managed to hole my fair share of putts.”
Moriarty was joined on four under par by the English trio of Matthew Baldwin, Tommy Fleetwood and Andrew Johnston, South African Tyrone Ferreira, Argentina’s Cesar Monasterio and Spaniard Pedro Oriol.
Despite suffering from flu and being distressed by the plane crash in Russia which killed a number of his ice hockey heroes, Ahokas compiled the lowest round of a testing Challenge Tour campaign with a 66 on the opening day of the lucrative Kazakhstan Open.
Leader Ahokas endured a sleepless night, having heard the news of the accident which killed 36 players and officials from the major league team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, but made light of his lethargy to fire seven birdies and a solitary bogey to set the pace on six under par, one stroke clear of England’s Chris Lloyd and Irishman Simon Thornton.
The flying Finn, currently languishing in 151st place in the Challenge Tour Rankings, is in need of a high finish at the €400,000 event if he is to stand any chance of securing a return to The European Tour, and he got off to the perfect start with two birdies in his opening three holes at the stunning Nurtau Golf Club.
After dropping his only shot of the day at the 13th hole, where he found the long rough, Ahokas hit back with another birdie on the 17th hole, and scorched home after the turn in just 32 shots in a display of golf which was as hot as the weather in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s second largest city.
The two-time Challenge Tour champion said: “It was very difficult after what happened in Russia last night, because I’m a huge ice hockey fan and a lot of my idols were killed in the crash. So it was an emotional night and today golf didn’t feel too important, but of course I’m happy with a 66 because it’s been a difficult season. I’ve really struggled this year, so this was by far my best competitive round of the season. I got a couple of good breaks, because the rough is really thick and I got some good lies, but maybe after the season I’ve had it’s about time I got a bit of luck.”
In contrast, Lloyd suffered some ill fortune when his caddie accidentally stepped on his ball on the 17th hole, incurring a one-stroke penalty. But the 19 year old still managed to salvage par, and after posting a brace of eagles on his inward nine, he signed for a round of 67 to finish on five under par.
Following a bright start to his debut season, Lloyd has slipped outside the top 20 of the Rankings after struggling with his game in recent weeks. But with €64,000 on offer to the winner this week, a top five finish would all but secure the boy from Bristol a European Tour card for the first time.
He said: “I would’ve taken five under at the start of the day without a shadow of a doubt, and I suppose it’s a good sign that although I feel I haven’t really played very well, I’ve still shot a 67. Level par might’ve been a more accurate reflection of my play, especially on my front nine, but there have been plenty of times this season where I’ve walked off with a 72 and felt I deserved a 67, so maybe today was payback time!&rdquo
Kazakhstan Open, Round 1:
66 A Ahokas (Fin) ,
67 S Thornton (Irl) , C Lloyd (Eng) ,
68 T Fleetwood (Eng) , C Moriarty (Irl) , A Johnston (Eng) , T Ferreira (RSA) , P Oriol (Esp) , M Baldwin (Eng) , C Monasterio (Arg) ,
69 S Tiley (Eng) , C Doak (Sco) , V Riu (Fra) , C Macaulay (Sco) , S Little (Eng) , J Morgan (Eng) , J Guerrier (Fra) , C Paisley (Eng) , A Hartø (Den) ,
70 L Canter (Eng) , C Gane (Eng) , A Marshall (Eng) , J McLeary (Sco) , M Ruiz (Par) , F Delamontagne (Fra) , J Quesne (Fra) , J Palmer (Eng) , B Chapellan (Fra) , F Colombo (Ita) , K Borsheim (Nor) , A Domingo (Esp) ,
71 M Ford (Eng) , F Valera (Esp) , F Praegant (Aut) , S Dong (Kor) , P Gustafsson (Swe) , J Grillon (Fra) , A Willey (Eng) , J Heath (Eng) , T Whitehouse (Eng) , C Suneson (Esp) , C Russo (Fra) , K Lifanov (Rus) , J Campillo (Esp) , S Pinckney (USA) , M Southgate (Eng) ,
72 M Cryer (Eng) , P Edberg (Swe) , L Jensen (Den) , S Walker (Eng) , B Grace (RSA) , M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra) , N Kearney (Irl) , N McCarthy (Eng) , A Snobeck (Fra) , S Bebb (Wal) , A Canete (Arg) , J Moul (Eng) , T Feyrsinger (Aut) , M Delpodio (Ita) , J Hepworth (Eng) , D Kim (Kor) , L Kennedy (Eng) , P Baker (Eng) , A Hansen (Den) , A Otaegui (Esp) ,
73 G Jackson (Eng) , A Pavan (Ita) , J Clément (Sui) , A Butterfield (Eng) , R Kind (Ned) , B Evans (Eng) , A Bernadet (Fra) , P Archer (Eng) , L Westerberg (Swe) , C Lee (Sco) , J Robinson (Eng) , N Meitinger (Ger) , M Vibe-Hastrup (Den) , R Santos (Por) , A Perrino (Ita) ,
74 C Brazillier (Fra) , J Garcia (Esp) , R Hjelm (Den) , G Dear (Sco) , K Eriksson (Swe) , A Bossert (Sui) , B Barham (Eng) , B Ritthammer (Ger) , F Calmels (Fra) , K Panagiotis (Gre) , A Tampion (Aus) , C Ford (Eng) , M Kieffer (Ger) , P Relecom (Bel) , S Hutsby (Eng) , G Lockerbie (Eng) , W Besseling (Ned) , E Kofstad (Nor) ,
75 B Etchart (Esp) , B Miarka (Ger) , E Dubois (Fra) , G Houston (Wal) , A Pavlov (Rus) , A Tadini (Ita) , K Kim (Kor) , M Bothma (RSA) , A Maestroni (Ita) , D Brooks (Eng) , C Carranza (Arg) , D Denison (Eng) ,
76 R Steiner (Aut) , J Estevez (Arg) , J Doherty (Sco) , W Schauman (Swe) , M Erlandsson (Swe) , P Del Grosso (Arg) , J Van Der Vaart (Ned) ,
77 J Lagergren (Swe) , A McArthur (Sco) , T Jeong (Kor) , Y Kafelnikov (Rus) ,
78 P Dwyer (Eng) , F Ohlsson (Swe) ,
79 D Vancsik (Arg) ,
80 B Åkesson (Swe) , M Nichols (Eng) ,
83 A Vongay (Kaz) , K Kang Byung (am) (Kaz) ,
84 A Lagay (Kaz) ,
93 A Khachatryan (am) (Kaz) ,
** B Hafthorsson (Isl) ,