Just a week after Russel Franz and Danie Van Tonder went toe-to-toe in the final round of the GMC Doubles, the GFG Academy stable-mates were at it again in the opening round of the IGT Tour’s Houghton Open on Monday. The pair tied at seven-under-par 67, but the big dogs might want to keep an eye on the puppy chasing their tails. Former top ranked amateur Damian Naicker fired a flawless six under 66 at Houghton Golf Club and trails just one stroke off the pace.
Irvin Mazibuko carded a five under 67 to stay in touch with the leaders, while Dean O’Riley, Andi Dill, Breyten Meyer and Jacques De Villiers finished a further two strokes back in a tie for fifth. Naicker rose to prominence with a superb performance for the victorious Central Gauteng team in the 2011 South African Inter-Provincial, but he failed to make it into the pro ranks at the 2012 Vusi Ngubeni Qualifying School. The 27-year-old Modderfontein golfer recently returned home after a three year stint in the United Kingdom and is plying his trade on the country’s premier development Tour to have another stab at qualifying for the Sunshine Tour.
He says: ‘I stayed in Yorkshire for three years and played the EuroPro Tour for about a year. I gained a lot of experience but I also realised that I needed to put in a lot more hours if I wanted to make a career out of golf. So far, I’ve had two top 10s in five starts on the IGT Tour. It really builds your confidence when you can put yourself in contention against guys like Danie. I struck the ball beautifully and I made a lot of putts, but I still left a few out there. I managed to keep bogey-free and that was really the key to my round.’ Van Tonder, meanwhile, turned three under after a flawless front nine and reeled in more birdies at 10, 11, 13, 14 and 15. He kept his card clean until an unfortunately bogey at the final hole. The three-time Sunshine Tour winner says: ‘I guess I had a Pop-Eye moment. I got a bit too strong there with the approach, but it wasn’t bad day at the office at all. I left four putts in the throat on the front nine, but it feels absolutely fantastic to be striking the ball well and to be scoring again. I had such a great season in 2014, but I caught the dip last year. It often happens that you go through a patch like that, but you just have to stay patient and work your way back. Last week I was 20 under through three rounds and I knew I was making great progress. To confirm it with a round like this is really good for the confidence.’
Franz’s round went the other way. He had five birdies, an eagle at the par five fifth and a bogey at nine, but the putter ran cold on the back nine. He picked up another gain at 11, and negated a bogey at 17 with a birdie finish to claim a share of pole position.
Franz says: ‘I really owe that birdie at 18 to my caddie, Fran Olivier. He knew I was teed off about the bogey at 17 and I was thinking about smashing a driver down 18, but he talked me out of it. He told me to leave the driver in the bag and said we only need two-iron and sand-wedge to make a birdie. And he was right. It was nice playing the back nine with Danie having a hot run, because Hennie and I really enjoyed our rally against him and Jared (Harvey) at Zwartkop last week. His presence just makes you dig a little deeper and stay a bit more focussed and he makes us raise our games.’
FIRST ROUND SCORES
All competitors RSA unless otherwise specified and amateurs indicated as AMA:
65 – Danie Van Tonder, Russel Franz
66 – Damian Naicker
67 – Irvin Mazibuko
69 – Dean O’Riley, Andi Dill, Breyten Meyer, Jacques De Villiers
70 – Stephan Erasmus (AMA), Duane Keun, Antonio Rosado (POR), Anton Haig, Teboho Sefatsa, Paul De Beer
Photo credit: CJ Du Plooy