Gareth Maybin gives the thumbs up at Leopard CreekGareth Maybin gives the thumbs up during the first round of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek. Picture: David Lloyd /

Gareth Maybin came back from a mid-round double bogey to get his Alfred Dunhill Championship bid off to a fighting start at spectacular Leopard Creek.

The Ballyclare man birdied three of his last six holes for a 69 to end up just four shots off the lead in the second event of the 2014 European Tour season. But there was an equally impressive performance from Waterford rookie Kevin Phelan, who also birdied three of his last six holes to get his first season as a full card holder off to a flyer with a two under 70.

Kevin PhelanKevin Phelan, pictured during the US Open at Merion, had just 26 putts in the first round at Leopard Creek. Picture: Eoin Clarke

The 23-year old, who made the cut in this year’s US Open as an amateur before turning professional after September’s Walker Cup, battled his way through all three stages of the Q-School to win his tour card earlier this month.

He has now entered the vicious jungle of pro golf and but his trip to Leopard Creek, a spectacular course teeming with wildllife on the edge of the Kruger National Park, does not appear to have fazed him in the slightest.

On a day when Michael Hoey shot 76 (and retired after 9 holes of his secodn round), Simon Thornton shot 79 and Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie shot level par 72s to sit just inside the cut line - the Kells man had three birdies only to make a triple bogey seven at his final hole - Phelan finished in style to share 15th place on two under.

Having followed birdies at the par-five second and par-three fifth with bogeys at the sixth, seventh and 11th, he picked up shots at the 13th, the short 16th and the par-five last to get the 2014 campaign off to a great start.

His performances on the biggest stages have come as no surprise to his Jacksonville-based coach Mark McCumber, a former US Ryder Cup player and 10-time PGA Tour winner.

“One of Kevin’s big strengths is that he has always played a more mature game than his age suggests,” McCumber explains in the latest edition of Golfing Magazine. “He has an old spirit and I mean that as a compliment. “It’s pretty amazing to make it through the first stage of Q-School on the number, the second stage on the number and to came to the last hole in the finals where if you make bogey you miss, and he makes birdie.

“He has proven that he can play under pressure too, which is a very nice quality for someone who wants to play golf for a living. You never know how a rookie will do but in my experience, the signs are very good indeed.”

Maybin, who finished 95th in the Race to Dubai last year despite making just 11 of 26 cuts, also birdied the second and fifth before a double bogey six at the 11th put him back to square one.

But like Phelan, he also birdied the 13th and made further in-roads on par at the 15th and 18th to end the day tied for eighth, four shots behind Denmark’s Morten Ørum Madsen, who won his maiden European Tour title at last week’s season-opening South African Open Championship.

The Dan fired eight birdies and a single bogey at Leopard Creek Country Club which was good enough for a one-shot first round lead over South African Allan Versfeld and Portugal’s Ricardo Santos.

Defending champion Charl Schwartzel was two shots further back on four under alongside England’s Richard Finch, Scotland’s David Drysdale and France’s Victor Riu.

England’s Simon Dyson, who faces a disciplinary hearing in front of a three-man panel next Thurday over his disqualification from last month’s BMW Masters in Shanghai, matched Lawrie and McGrane on level par after a 72.

Michael Hoey withdrew after nine holes on Friday after unsuccessfully trying to shake off the effects of 'flu.

The Belfast man, who had no chance of asking the cut, explained that he was "
"pretty shattered."