Simon Thornton opened with a four under 67 in the Challenge Tour Grand Final in Italy. Picture ©Phil InglisExpectant dad Simon Thornton is bang on course to win back his European card after a four under par 67 left him just a shot off the lead in the Challenge Tour’s Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.

The 34-year old, whose wife Ciara is due to give birth to the couple’s second child on Saturday, is challenging for a victory that would give him a huge advantage on the main circuit next season.

At 15th in the Challenge Tour Rankings, his steady opening round at San Domenico Golf in Puglia left him perfectly positioned to consolidate his place in the top-20 and gain a European Tour card.

But it also means he is in the hunt to steal into the top ten and claim an even better category next term, ensuring even more starts.

“It sets me up nicely,” Thornton said. “I’m confident that I can play like that every day, so you’ve just got to keep going and playing the same stuff and hopefully it’ll go right over the next three days.”

Frenchman Julien Guerrier produced a sparkling 66 stake a late claim for one of the 20 golden tickets on offer and share the lead with Spaniard Jorge Campillo, Italy’s Andrea Pavan and Portugal’s Ricardo Santos.

But Irish PGA champion Thornton is confident he can remain in the hunt for his first tour win.

He started solidly with a par on the extremely difficult first hole before birdies on the third and fifth holes helped him to a two under par front nine of 32.

He began to pick up some momentum on the back nine with birdies on the 11th, 13th and 15th before dropping the only shot of the day with a bogey at the 16th, leaving him in a seven-way tie for fifth in the 45-man field.

“I played well, I only missed a couple of greens all day,” said the Co Down resident. “I played really well off the tee, gave myself plenty of chances and I could have had a few more birdies early on.

“I hit a bad drive on the 16th, went into the bunker with my second and didn’t get up and down. But apart from that I played good golf.”

Having entered the week in 37th place in the Rankings, it is perhaps Guerrier who has the most to gain at the season-ending event, which is being held at the stunning San Domenico Golf, in the Puglia region of southern Italy, for the seventh successive year.
Guerrier reeled off four birdies but the highlight of the 2006 Amateur Champion’s day came at the 15th hole, where he used his driver from the fairway to devastating effect, hitting his approach to 25 feet and holing out for an eagle which more than compensated for his three-putt bogey on the previous hole.

A birdie on the 17th hole moved him to five under par, and he was later joined on that mark by Campillo plus Challenge Tour champions Santos, currently third in the Rankings, and Pavan, who is sponsored by San Domenico Golf.

Guerrier said: “Everyone’s out here to win this week and there are a lot of players who can win, but because I can only qualify with a first or second finish, it actually allows me to relax a little bit so that helped me today. I don’t really have anything to lose, so I’m just going for it.”

Campillo has twice come close to securing his maiden Challenge Tour title in his debut campaign, only to fall just short at both the Acaya Open and the Rolex Open. But those two tied runner-up finishes, allied with two further top ten finishes, have helped him climb to 13th place in the Rankings and within sight of promotion to the top tier, which would erase the heartache he experienced at last year’s Qualifying School Final Stage, where he had one hand on a European Tour card before undoing his hard work with a closing round of 81.

In contrast, the 25 year old from Caceres compiled a flawless round of 66, hitting 17 greens in regulation.

He said: “I played really well, although I didn’t get off to the best of starts. I hit my drive left off the tee and then and couldn’t get there in two, but I managed to get up and down and after that I played some really solid stuff. I didn’t make too many putts – three of my birdies were from within three feet – but from tee to green, it was very good. I’m really happy with my round, and hopefully I can make a few more putts tomorrow.”

Pavan knows every contour of the layout at San Domenico Golf, and he used his local knowledge to good effect by notching eight birdies in a dynamic display on home soil.

The Rome resident started the season without a playing category, but after receiving some sponsors’ invitations his talent soon shone through, and a second victory of the season would give him every chance of following in the spikemarks of his illustrious compatriot Edoardo Molinari, the Rankings winner in 2009.

Pavan said: “I’ve obviously played the course many times, but today was my first tournament round here, so it felt a little different. I read the greens well today, and managed to put it in the right places on the fairways. I also know how the course plays in the wind, so if it comes in the next few days, it might help my chances.”  

Having led the Rankings for much of the season before being overtaken by first Tommy Fleetwood and latterly Sam Little, Santos will be keen to reassert his authority over the two Englishman, who were his playing partners in a thrilling three-ball which produced 15 birdies and just two bogeys.

Santos said: “It was a really enjoyable day because the two guys played very well too. It was the first time I’ve played with Sam and the second time I’ve played with Tommy. They are really good guys, it was a very friendly atmosphere.”

Fleetwood and Little, currently second and first respectively in the Rankings, signed for matching rounds of 67, meaning their battle for supremacy at the top of the tree looks likely to go down to the wire.

Challenge Tour, Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, San Domenico Golf, Puglia, Italy, par 71.

First round

66 J Guerrier  (Fra), R Santos  (Por), J Campillo (Esp), A Pavan (Ita),

67 Simon Thornton (Irl), S Little (Eng), A Johnston (Eng), J Elson  (Eng), A Marshall (Eng), B Hebert  (Fra), S Tiley (Eng), T Fleetwood  (Eng),

68 V Riu  (Fra), M Erlandsson (Swe), C Russo (Fra), C Gane (Eng), C Lloyd (Eng),

69 S Walker (Eng), P Edberg (Swe), A Tampion  (Aus), B Ritthammer (Ger), J Quesne  (Fra), D Denison  (Eng), M Baldwin (Eng), F Praegant (Aut), J Lima  (Por), A Snobeck  (Fra), A Tadini (Ita), C Lee (Sco),

70 E Dubois (Fra), E Kofstad (Nor), L Kennedy  (Eng), B Grace  (RSA),

71 P Gustafsson (Swe), C Doak (Sco), F Delamontagne  (Fra), M Bothma (RSA),

72 K Borsheim  (Nor), F Colombo (Ita), T Ferreira  (RSA), L Jensen (Den),

73 P Archer (Eng), M Southgate  (Eng), J Moul  (Eng), N Meitinger  (Ger)