Rosapenna's Ruaidhri McGee faced an uphill battle to win his European Tour card heading into today's second round of the Challenge Tour's NBO Golf Classic Grand Final in Oman.
Needing a top three finish to earn enough cash to make the Top 15 in the Road to Oman rankings who gain promotion to the main tour after this week's season-ending event, the 27th ranked Derry native was tied 31st in the 45 man field after a one over 73 featuring three birdies and four bogeys on The Wave Course at Almouj Golf.
Denmark's Joachim B Hansen launched himself into contention for European Tour graduation as he took the first round lead thanks to a six under par 66 with Road to Oman Rankings leader Ricardo Gouveia lurking ominously a shot back in Muscat.
The European Challenge Tour’s season finale never fails to produce drama and raw emotion by the bucketload and this year’s battle to finish the season top of the Road to Oman Rankings took another intriguing twist.
Portugal’s highest ranked player ever Gouveia has enjoyed an incredibly consistent season, which included a second career victory in Germany, and his determination to be crowned Challenge Tour Number One was once again evident with a bogey-free five under par round of 67.
Björn Åkesson, who is fourth in the Rankings and still in with a shout of leap-frogging Gouveia in the season-long list, was a shot further back on four under par alongside Englishmen Ryan Evans and James Robinson, while Sebastien Gros - second in the Road to Oman - was one of five players on three under par.
It was Hansen who ruled the roost in the searing Omani heat, however, and he admitted that the bizarre coincidence of the only three Danes in the field being put together in the same group - in a draw which was determined by Rankings positions – was a big help as he bounced back from an opening bogey to storm clear.
“That was a perfect opening round,” said the 25 year old, who began the week just two places outside the European Tour promotion places in the Road to Oman, in 17th spot. “It puts me in a good position heading into the next three rounds so I’m really happy.
“It is a pressurised time of the year but I just found something good in my swing recently, it’s working really well ball-striking wise and the putter keeps rolling too.
“It was fun playing with the guys. We started not great, I think all three of us were nervous definitely, but we all had good rounds in the end so that’s nice.
“You just try and focus on your shots and then when you hit the shot you go and talk a bit, and joke around a bit.
“I really want to get back to The European Tour. I will be making new goals every day and for every round so hopefully it will work.”
Gouveia was delighted with his start and is relishing the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with his other challengers to the Rankings throne in the next three days.
“I played really well today,” said the 24 year old. “I hit the ball well and just had one bad swing all day, but I managed to end up with a four there so it was a good round overall. I holed a few putts too so it was a good first round.
“I’m very excited. It’s going to be a battle until the end and Sebastien played well today, so it will probably come down to the last putt on the 18th.
“I’m looking only at the top of the leaderboard. My goal is just to win this event and I actually looked at a few leaderboards today to see where I was. I just want to keep up with the lead.”
For Åkesson, the relief of having virtually secured his European Tour promotion following a runner-up finish at The Foshan Open two weeks ago kept him stress-free on what is typically a nerve-wracking four days for the majority of the field, and now he wants to go forth and win the Rankings.
“It was a good start, three under through four,” said the 26 year old. “I played well, it was a solid round and I bogeyed eight and eleven but then made three birdies coming in with a few good up and downs, so it was a good result.
“I’m just playing well right now. It felt a bit more relaxing, especially on the first tee, than when I’m usually in a situation – it’s usually a bit tense – but I was relaxed from the beginning so of course it’s a different feeling this morning. But I’m playing well right now so I just need to ride the wave.
“I absolutely want to win the Rankings now. If the wind is right, I’m going to try and go and drive a few par fours tomorrow and try to win this tournament.
“It’s a fun battle, the other guys ahead of me in the Rankings are very good golfers and it will be tough to beat them. I’ll just play my own game now, which is pretty aggressive, and just stick to my gameplan.”
Max Orrin, who won in Oman last year when the Middle Eastern country hosted the penultimate event of the season, was one of ten players tied for 11th place on two under par.
66 J Hansen (Den),
67 R Gouveia (Por),
68 J Robinson (Eng), B Åkesson (Swe), R Evans (Eng),
69 S Henry (Sco), C Shinkwin (Eng), T Murray (Eng), J Dantorp (Swe), S Gros (Fra),
70 G Murray (Sco), D Huizing (Ned), M Delpodio (Ita), M Orrin (Eng), J Winther (Den), S Jeppesen (Swe), C Hanson (Eng), N Elvira (Esp), T Linard (Fra), P Widegren (Swe), J Hahn (USA),
71 D Im (USA), B Stone (RSA), H Joannes (Bel), L Gagli (Ita), B Virto Astudillo (Esp),
72 R McGowan (Eng), M Søgaard (Den), D Foos (Ger), S Arnold (Aus),
73 A Björk (Swe), P Whiteford (Sco), R Davies (Wal), J Fahrbring (Swe), Ruaidhri McGee (Irl),
74 S Soderberg (Swe), R Coles (Eng), J Senior (Eng), R Fox (Nzl), G Boyd (Eng),
75 A McArthur (Sco),
76 C Sordet (Fra), H Porteous (RSA), S Walker (Eng),
78 J McLeary (Sco).