David Higgins drew on his vast experience to keep his cool and open with a five under par 65 at the European Tour Qualifying School finals on an otherwise frustrating day for Ireland’s hopefuls.
Yet the Waterville man still found himself five shots behind red-hot leader Sam Hutsby as the 23-year old Englishman took the easier Tour Course apart at PGA Catalunya, blasting a 10-under par 60 to lead by three strokes from Dutchman Tim Sluiter and by four from American Patrick Reed.
“I had an eagle putt on the last for a 59, but it was from a fair way out,” Hutsby said. “I didn’t hit the best of putts and pulled it six feet left of the hole, so in the end I was quite pleased to sink the birdie putt for a round of 60.”
Higgins had six birdies and a bogey in his five under par effort on the same track to finish the day in an eight-way tie for fourth in an event where the top 30 and ties after six rounds will earn European Tour cards.
“The Tour Course is definitely the easier of the two so that puts pressure on you to shoot a score,” Higgins said. “What pleased me most was that I was calm. I was amazed how calm I was.”
The other three Irish hopefuls found the going tough on the testing Stadium Course with Ballymena’s Chris Devlin the best of the bunch in tied 103rd after a one-over par 73.
Limerick’s Cian McNamara and Clandeboye’s Jonny Caldwell both slumped to six over 78s at the longer track and at 152nd in the 156-man field, they have their work cut out to make the four-round cut for the top 70 and ties.
Higgins was out in the first group of the day in calm and sunny conditions at the Catalan track but after opening with five pars, he bunkered his approach at the sixth and bogeyed.
A less experienced player might have struggled after that but it wasn’t long before the former tour regular hit the birdie trail, holing from six feet at the seventh, five feet at the par-three eighth and four feet at the ninth to turn in 33.
A four-iron to five feet at the par-three 11th put him three under for the day and he then rounded off an excellent start with birdies at the last two holes, draining a 15 footer at the 17th before two-putting comfortably from long range at the par-five 18th.
“I just played steady all day,” Higgins said. “The Tour Course is definitely the easier of the two so that puts pressure on you to shoot a score. But everything was good and more importantly, I was calm. That’s what it’s all about this week. You have to try not to think about it too much and just play as if you were playing at home. That’s the hardest part.
“Stress levels are good, but it’s all about how you cope when you don’t hit the good shots. It’s a long week and hopefully I will be okay. What pleased me most was that I was calm. I was a bit amazed how calm I was. Maybe it was because we were out so early but it’s great and I hope it lasts.”
It was a far more frustrating day for the Irish trio that grappled with the Stadium Course where the best score of the day was a four under par 68.
Florida-based Ulsterman Devlin did well in the end to get up and down from 91 yards at his final hole, the ninth, where he holed an eight footer for par and a one over 73.
“The par save on nine was the only putt I made all day,” said the 36-year old from Ballymena. “I felt I hit it awful off the tee but my irons were great. I just couldn’t get a putt to drop all day even though I felt I was hitting great putts.
“It wasn’t playing as hard as I expected but I didn’t take advantage of that. I just want to get back at it tomorrow. I can shoot the grass off this place if I can just play the way I know I can. I have just got to swing it a little better off the tee and make some putts. I am just a little frustrated right now.”
Devlin wan’t half as frustrated as Caldwell or McNamara after they slipped to the bottom of the leaderboard after disappointing 78’s,
Caldwell was always struggling after opening with three straight bogeys and after three more shots went at the ninth, 10th and 12th, he followed birdies at the 14th and 15th with morale-shattering bogeys at the 16th and 17th.
“I just hit a lot of sloppy shots, short-sided myself too many times and the putter wasn’t behaving itself,” Caldwell said. “I had eight bogeys, got it back to four but had a few three putts in there.
“I wasn’t nervous but I hit a poor tee shot at the first and had to chip out, hit a poor eight iron on the second and missed the green and then three-putted the third and then I was behind the eight ball. But it is a long week. If I can shoot a couple of decent scores on the shorter course, I can get back in the mix.”
Out in the last group of the day, McNamara got off to a solid start and moved into the red with a birdie at the fifth before a three-putt bogey “from nowhere” at the next signalled the start of a nightmare run of eight dropped shots in nine holes.
While he had three, three-putt greens, the 25-year old Limerick man put his score down to stupid mistakes and panic.
“The greens cost me a less damaging score,” he said. “I let one mistake lead to two or three mistakes and kind of panicked to be honest and let a couple of stupid mistakes happen instead of just plodding on as I normally do.
“I was probably dwelling on those to be honest. It’s disappointing. I’ll have to do a low one tomorrow now and see what happens.”
First Round scores from The European Tour’s Qualifying School Final Stage at PGA Catalunya Resort, Girona, Spain; Stadium course, par 72; Tour course, par 70 (* denotes Tour course)
First Round scores from The European Tour’s Qualifying School Final Stage at PGA Catalunya Resort, Girona, Catalonia; Stadium course, par 72; Tour course, par 70 (* denotes Tour course)
60 S Hutsby (Eng)*
63 T Sluiter (Ned)*
64 P Reed (USA)*
65 B Barham (Eng)* David Higgins (Irl)* J Hugo (RSA)* C Brazillier (Fra)* R Quiros (Esp)* A Tampion (Aus)* B Ritthammer (Ger)* A Sullivan (Eng)*
66 E Kofstad (Nor)* J Lagergren (Swe)* M Carlsson (Swe)* D Fichardt (RSA)* K Borsheim (Nor)* G Cambis (Fra)* S Pinckney (USA)*
67 P Dwyer (Eng)* C Paisley (Eng)* A Snobeck (Fra)* T Leon (USA)* V Riu (Fra)*( R Bland (Eng)* A Michael (RSA)* J Hansen (Den)* R Dinwiddie (Eng)* M Ford (Eng)* M Crespi (Ita)*
68 M Nixon (Eng)* N Meitinger (Ger)* J Guerrier (Fra)* D Vancsik (Arg), P Oriol (Esp)* H Soon-Sang (Kor)* S Kim (Kor)* F Delamontagne (Fra)* B Grace (RSA), A McLean (Sco)* S Buhl (Ger)* A Perrino (Ita)* G Orr (Sco)* L Kennedy (Eng), A Marshall (Eng)* A Bernadet (Fra), A Otaegui (Esp), D Wright (Eng)* F De Vries (Ned)*
69 B Parker (Eng), A Tadini (Ita)* M Lafeber (Ned), T Mordt (RSA)* C Lloyd (Eng)* M Vibe-Hastrup (Den)* U Weinhandl (Aut)* E Canonica (Ita)* L Goddard (Eng)* J Gibb (Eng), T Van Der Walt (RSA)* J Haeggman (Swe)* T Argonz (Arg)* W Abery (RSA), D McKenzie (Aus),
70 M Kieffer (Ger), M Lundberg (Swe), P Gustafsson (Swe), J Zapata (Arg), M Southgate (Eng), R Echenique (Arg), A Da Silva (Bra), D Brooks (Eng)* R Saxton (Ned), J Knutzon (USA), M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), N Dougherty (Eng)* C Suneson (Esp)* A Versfeld (RSA)* G Clark (Eng)* A Byeong-Hun (Kor)* A Forsyth (Sco)* A Lahiri (Ind)* D Bransdon (Aus)* B Chapellan (Fra)*
71 C Monasterio (Arg), M Molina (Arg)* C Doak (Sco), T Ferreira (RSA)* H Bacher (Aut), J Garcia (Esp), A Domingo (Esp), M Erlandsson (Swe)* M Madsen (Den), A Canete (Arg), A Haindl (RSA), J Wahlqvist (Swe)* J Garcia Pinto (Esp), S Wakefield (Eng)* J Sandelin (Swe)* T Nørret (Den),
72 A Velasco (Esp), C Russo (Fra)* A Parr (Can), P Broadhurst (Eng), T Hatton (Eng), L Tintera (Cze)* M Eliasson (Swe)* S Benson (Eng)* J Bäckström (Swe), A Garcia-Heredia (Esp), B Evans (Eng), J Ruth (Eng)* J Lima (Por), P Richardson (Eng),
73 X Poncelet (Fra), A Townsend (Aus), M Tullo (Chi), M Siddikur (Ban), Chris Devlin (Nir), O Henningsson (Swe), T Remkes (Ned), D Gaunt (Aus)* P Archer (Eng), J Morgan (Eng), J Walters (RSA), S O’Hara (Sco), A Kang (USA), S Jeppesen (Swe), J Levermore (Eng), E Grillo (Arg),
74 E Saltman (Sco), B Mannix (Eng), W Ormsby (Aus), A Hartø (Den), A Ahokas (Fin), M Haastrup (Den), S Matton (Eng)* D Dixon (Eng), W Besseling (Ned), J Elson (Eng), M Rominger (Sui),
75 J Robinson (Eng), M Quiros (Esp)* F Fritsch (Ger), S Drummond (Sco), D Smith (Eng),
76 F McGuirk (Eng), C Macaulay (Sco),
77 J Huldahl (Den), J Etulain (Arg)* A Kaleka (Fra), L Saltman (Sco), F Praegant (Aut),
78 Cian McNamara (Irl), Jonny Caldwell (Nir),
79 G Emerson (Eng),
81 L Jensen (Den).