Gareth Maybin made a strong start in the €1m SA Open Championship but the Ballyclare star still faces a stiff challenge to retain his European Tour card over the next fortnight.
The 31-year old Ulsterman opened with a three-under par 69 to trail fellow struggler Steven O’Hara of Scotland and South Africa’s Jbe Kruger by four shots at Serengeti Golf Club.
That was good enough for 24th place but Maybin, who is sitting in the hot-seat at 118th in the Race to Dubai standings, knows he has little margin of error if he is to retain his card following next week’s UBS Hong Kong Open.
The Top-115 money earners are exempt next season but with three players set to be removed from the Race to Dubai standings because they will not play the requisite 13 events, the Top-118 will survive. That makes Maybin a man with a bullseye on his back.
While 112th ranked Damien McGrane does not reappear until next week, most of Maybin’s rivals for tour survival are in action in South Africa and several started well.
Austria’s Markus Brier (116th), Welshman Phillip Price (117th) and South Africa’s Keith Horne (120th) are tied for 11th place after four-under 68’s.
However, Maybin’s biggest threat is joint leader O’Hara, who is 134th in the money list and €48,146 behind him on the money list.
The 31-year old Scot, a team mate of Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell in the winning 2001 Walker Cup side, is not qualified for next week’s final event in Hong Kong and needs a win or a top-three finish to keep his card.
After firing six birdies and an eagle at the 576-yard eighth in his 65, O’Hara said: “I hit a lot of great shots. I had it inside ten feet pretty much every hole and felt I could have made more birdies.”
Two-time US Open winner Retief Goosen, down to 52nd in the world after a season of struggles with back injury,shares third spot with fellow South Africans Merrick Bremner, David Hewan and Tyrone Mordt after a 66 that promised to be even better.
The 42-year old was seven under through 12 after starting on the back nine, but bogeyed his 16th and 17th before almost holing out for an ace at the 230-yard ninth to finish with a birdie.
Defending champion Ernie Els, now 53rd in the world rankings, matched Maybin’s 69.
“Three under is not bad, but there were a couple of silly bogeys,” Els said after mixing six birdies with three dropped shots. “I grew up in this area, so it’s nice to be back - and it’s a great course.”