Waterville veteran David Higgins used all his experience to survive the carnage on a windlashed opening day at the European Tour Qualifying School finals at the PGA Catalunya Resort in Catalonia.
The 39-year old Irish PGA champion battled to a one over 73 on the tough Stadium Course where winds gusting over 25 mph sent scores rocketing as high as 86.
“I was tough out there and tough to judge how far it would run into the greens,” said Higgins, who is tied for 42nd in the race to finish in the top 25 and ties after six rounds.
“You could be two clubs out because it is soft in parts and firm in others. But I hit it nicely and I’m happy with the score. We didn’t blow ourselves out of it and a 73 around this course is not a bad score at all.”
Mikael Lundberg’s four under 68 the best of just six sub-par rounds recorded on the longer of the tow courses used for the six round test. In contrast Douglas’ Peter O’Keeffe and Lurgan’s Gareth Shaw left themselves with a mountain to climb just to make the top 70 and ties who will make the 72-hole cut after nine over par 81s on the Stadium Course left them tied for 150th in the 156-man field.
Just 26 players broke par on a day when a treacherous east wind made even the accessible, par-70, 6,610-yard Tour Course a tricky customer.
Even with preferred lies in operation, Lundberg’s brilliant 68 was only good enough for a share of second place with Scot George Murray as Argentina’s Estanislao Goya fired a six under 64 on Tour Course alongside Royal County Down’s Simon Thornton.
The Bradford native holed nothing as he opened with a one over 71 to match Ballymena’s Chris Devlin while Royal Dublin’s Niall Kearney was poor around the greens and had 34 putts in a three over 73 featuring three birdies and six bogeys
“It was just bad putting,” Kearney said. “Whenever I had a chance, I was above the hole. Then when I missed a green I was leaving myself six footers and missing them. Not good, but there’s a long way to go.”
Thornton said: “I played alright but the conditions were tough but I didn’t really hole anything. That was the story of the day. It was hard to get close to pins. It was very boring, one three putt and that was it. I felt I played pretty much the same as Tano.”
The difference between them was the momentum - and quite a few putts including a 60 footer for eagle at the 10th - and neither Thornton nor Ballymena native Devlin had any.
Devlin went to the turn on one under. But it was hard work as he mixed birdies at the fourth, sixth and ninth with bogeys at the fifth and seventh. He had to birdie the last to shoot a one over 71 after racking up three bogeys in a row from the 14th.
“It was a tough day but I feel a little hard done by,” said the Florida based Ulsterman. “I hit a lot of good putts tht just lipped out and wouldn’t drop for me. I played well enough to shoot under par but it didn’t happen. You could easily shoot yourself out of it.
“Some of the holes were very tough in the wind which was all over the place and gusting. The game is right there but I have got to score better.”
O’Keeffe and Shaw will need to turn it on over the Tour Course today and hope for better weather when they return to the Stadium Course on Monday after their first round disasters.
Shaw made a horrific start on his debut at the final stage. Starting at the 10th, he had to hit two provisional balls off the tee. All three of his opening drives went left but he never found the original anddid well to make seven.
A “straight duff” into a dry hazard at the 14th led to a double bogey six that left the Lurgan man five over after five holes and reeling. And while he steadied the ship, he didn’t make a solitary birdie and dropped another four shots in his last six holes to end the day at the back of the field.
“It was tough out there,” said Shaw, who won the Alps Tour Order of Merit this year. “I had to hit three off the tee on the 10th, lost two balls today and the longest putt I holed was four feet.
“I’ve been struggling with a left ball all week and today showed I am not in form right now and don’t have it under control. But tomorrow it could be different.
“It was so just so hard and that four under by Lundberg was a fantastic golf score. It’s a very, very difficult golf course. I hit three identical shots off the 10th, lost the first one and found the second and third. Pured duffed a six iron into a hazard on the 14th.
“It wasn’t that Q-School got to me, it was just that I haven’t played a golf course that difficult in a couple of years. There is trouble everywhere and it is very, very long. Four irons into most greens.
“If this is what they are playing every week on the European Tour it is serious stuff. I’ve got a lot of work to do but I still think I can make the cut. I hit a few good shots into the par threes and hit 13 greens but the bad holes were too bad and the start was a killer.”
With Mark Murphy trying to keep him upbeat, O’Keeffe was four over after five and confessed that he was well off the pace on and around the greens in a round featuring three three-putts.
“I struggled all day long,” said the 31-year old, who bogeyed the first, third, fourth and fifth before getting off the bogey train with a birdie at the sixth.
A bogey at the short eighth saw him turn in 40 but he bogeyed the 10th, and followed a birdie four at the 12th with a double bogey sixth at the water-protected 13th before dropping three more shots at the 15th, 16th and 17th.
“I made a few birdies but I lost a lot of shots in and around the greens,” he added. “It’s disappointing because I prepared very well and I was upbeat coming here.
“But there are five days to go hopefully. I wasn’t nervous, I was really looking forward to it but it just got away from me today. I hit a couple of bad tee shots but I wasn’t good around the greens.”
He wasn’t the only one to struggle.
Former European Tour winners Kenneth Ferrie and Nick Dougherty shot eight over 80s while Spain’s Pablo Martin, a winner on tour as an amateur and a professional, signed for a nine over 81.
Goya confessed that his putting was the key to his score.
The European Tour writes:
“I played very nicely today, didn’t miss many shots and managed to hole some putts so it was very good,” said Goya, who finished just four places away from retaining his European Tour card after finishing in 123rd place in The Race to Dubai.
“The eagle was definitely a highlight because of what led to it so it was a real boost at that time. That and the long one at 16 were two putts that gave me a lot of confidence. But overall I just played very nicely, I hit a lot of fairways and greens which is obviously the main thing here.”
After finishing 94th, 99th and 98th in his previous three seasons on The European Tour after graduating from the Challenge Tour in 2008, Goya made a sound start to the 2012 season with a tied sixth finish in the Avantha Masters in February and a tied ninth place at the Sicilian Open in April.
However, a barren run of eight missed cuts in 12 events in the middle of year saw him slip down the Rankings and narrowly miss out on keeping his card despite a valiant effort at the SA Open Championship last week.
Goya, though, is keen to take the positives from his performance in South Africa, and is approaching the Qualifying School challenge with refreshing optimism.
He reflected: “To be honest I just didn’t get the right tournaments; I couldn’t get into the last tournaments in Singapore or Hong Kong but I played very nicely in South Africa and was just two strokes too short.
“I didn’t putt very well, though - I averaged 32 putts for the week and didn’t get the job done but it did help with my confidence. but I’m still playing well so I’m confident and feel good for the next five rounds.”
On a day when course co-designer, European Tour winner and Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors, Angel Gallardo remarked, “Anything that is par or better on the Stadium Course today is muy, muy bien,” Mikael Lundberg rode the ever-strengthening wind to sign for a superb four under par 68 on the brutal Stadium layout to lie second alongside Scotland’s George Murray.
The Swede, who lives with his family just 60 miles south of PGA Catalunya Resort in the region’s capital of Barcelona, got off to the perfect start in his eighth appearance in the Final Stage with a birdie at the first hole, his first of six on a round that was only slightly soured by a three-putt bogey – his second dropped shot of the day – on the 18th to finish.
“I don’t set goals at something like this; you just play and try to stay as relaxed as possible,” said Lundberg, who was one of only seven players out of 78 to finish under par for the day on the Stadium Course.
“You don’t want to be here but now I am I just have to make the best of it. My game hasn’t been that good the last month or so, so I’m just happy it’s starting to come together now.
“It was very tough out there, but I played really solidly and made a few good putts at the beginning and then holed my bunker shot on the 11th. It was unfortunate the way I finished, but overall it was a good round and I’m in a good position.”
Murray, who finished the 2011 season in 81st place in The Race to Dubai thanks largely to a tied third place finish in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, fired an excellent 66 on the Tour Course to take a share of second place in his first appearance at the Final Stage since 2009.
The Anstruther man fired five birdies and one bogey but after finishing the season 155th in the Rankings, Murray stressed the need for perspective so early in the marathon contest in Spain.
“It’s a nice start, it was very windy at times so it wasn’t easy at all out there,” he said. “I got off to a good start with a regulation birdie at my first, the tenth, then I picked up another shot on the 12th.
“I got lucky on the 18th, where my drive could easily have bounced out of bounds but just stayed in bounds. So that was a lucky break, and I made the most of it with three more birdies on my back nine.
“I can’t really put my finger on where it’s gone wrong for me this season, I just haven’t really got going, but hopefully I’ve turned a bit of a corner today. There’s obviously still a long way to go though, so I’m not going to get carried away just yet.”
The 156-man field is split over the two immaculate courses at PGA Catalunya Resort over the first four days, playing two rounds on each of the Stadium and Tour courses, before a cut at 70 plus ties precedes 36 nail-biting holes on the Stadium Course as the race to claim one of the 25 cards on offer for The 2013 European Tour International Schedule reaches its climax.
64 E Goya (Arg)
66 G Murray (Sco)
67 D Griffiths (Eng), S Arnold (Aus), M Delpodio (Ita), R McEvoy (Eng), G Orr (Sco) ;
68 S Norris (RSA), A Levy (Fra), M Nixon (Eng), T Murray (Eng), M Lundberg (Swe), R Davies (Wal) ;
69 W Besseling (Ned), T Fisher Jnr (RSA), B Ritthammer (Ger), J McLeary (Sco), B An (Kor), A Snobeck (Fra), C Brazillier (Fra) ;
70 C Del Moral (Esp), B Dredge (Wal), L Jensen (Den), S Little (Eng), A Domingo (Esp), B Åkesson (Swe), D Huizing (Ned), P Hedblom (Swe), J Ruth (Eng), N Schietekat (RSA), E De La Riva (Esp), M Lampert (am) (Ger) ;
71 M Brier (Aut), A Hansen (Den), D Brooks (Eng), T Remkes (Ned), T Van Der Walt (RSA), J Parry (Eng), C Macaulay (Sco), A Sullivan (Eng), O Floren (Swe), C Devlin (Nir), J Lagergren (Swe), J Hugo (RSA), S Thornton (Irl), S Hong (Kor) ;
72 C Monasterio (Arg), L Goddard (Eng), J Grillon (Fra), M Haastrup (Den), D Im (USA), M Crespi (Ita), P Erofejeff (Fin), J Glennemo (Swe), K Pratt (Aus), D Dixon (Eng), M Southgate (Eng), F Calmels (Fra), P Edberg (Swe) ;
73 L Kennedy (Eng), C Lloyd (Eng), M Glauert (Ger), S Garcia Rodriguez (Esp), G Cambis (Fra), D Higgins (Irl), D Perrier (Fra), S Fallon (Eng), N Kearney (Irl), O Bekker (RSA), R Russell (Sco), C Kim (USA), B Koepka (USA) ;
74 Å Nilsson (Swe), M Sell (Eng), M Zions (Aus), M Jonzon (Swe), M Tunnicliff (Eng), C Aronsen (Nor), N Ravano (Ita), D Gaunt (Aus), C Suneson (Esp), M Korhonen (Fin), J Harding (RSA), J Timmis (Eng), H Bacher (Aut), M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), R Kakko (Fin), A Rota (Ita), S Hutsby (Eng), S Walker (Eng), O Lieser (Cze), T Haylock (Eng), P Broadhurst (Eng), O Rozner (am) (Fra) ;
75 J Sandelin (Swe), A Forsyth (Sco), S Whiffin (Eng), M Grönberg (Swe), J Howarth (Eng), S Strange (Aus), S Benson (Eng), R Blizard (Aus), R Karlberg (Swe), M Siddikur (Ban), T Pilkadaris (Aus), O Wilson (Eng), D Vancsik (Arg), A Marshall (Eng), P Uihlein (USA) ;
76 J Lerchedahl (Den), J Lima (Por), A Haig (RSA), I Pyman (Eng), Z Scotland (Eng), B Henson (USA), J Huldahl (Den), A Johnansson (Swe), F Bergamaschi (Ita), S Drummond (Sco), D Frittelli (RSA), L Bond (Wal), G Boyd (Eng) ;
77 A Otaegui (Esp), S Dodd (Wal), C Aguilar (Esp), R Hjelm (Den), J Barnes (Eng), J Scrivener (Aus), R McGowan (Eng), J Bäckström (Swe), J Watts (Eng), W Booth (Sco), S Tiley (Eng), W Bennett (Eng) ;
78 M Madsen (Den), K Borsheim (Nor), P Maddy (Eng), S Jeppesen (Swe), S Kim (Kor), G Clark (Eng) ;
79 D Kemmer (USA), O Henningsson (Swe) ;
80 N Floren (Swe), A McArthur (Sco), K Ferrie (Eng), J Jeong (Kor), P Archer (Eng), N Dougherty (Eng), J Gallegos (am) (Esp), A Saddier (am) (Fra) ;
81 T Sluiter (Ned), G Shaw (Nir), G Stal (Fra), P O’Keefe (Ire), P Martin (Esp) ;
86 D Wuensche (Ger) ;