A wet RACV Royal Pines greeted the early starters for the opening round of the Australian PGA Championship, with two of the late starters eventually finishing the day with the lead.
Adam Bland and Jordan Zunic were among the final players to complete their rounds as the music from the tented village rang out across the course.
Both players piled on birdies, and an eagle in Zunic’s case, to finish at six-under, one shot clear of two of the tournament’s star attractions Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman. Also at five under is Queenslander Daniel Nisbet and the evergreen Peter Senior, who despite being ‘retired’ at age 58 and hitting far longer clubs into greens than his younger playing partners managed a bogey free round.
“Well, they asked me to play at the Aussie Open,” Senior said of his temporary comeback. “They were holding a spot for me for a few days there. I didn't want to play, but Gavin Kirkman from the PGA, he's been on to me about playing. He said, "You would be a great asset even if you come out and play two days." I said, "If I'm coming out, I'm not playing two."
Garcia was off early alongside friend Adam Scott and was surprised to see so many bleary-eyed fans at 6:10am.
“I've never teed off at 6:10 in a tournament,” Garcia said. “Obviously in practice rounds I've done it before, but in a tournament I think probably the earliest I've teed off I want to say it's 6:50, maybe 7:00. So that was interesting. I think it was probably – I want to say it was the closest I've had a dinner and a breakfast ever.
“I thought there were going to be like 10 or 12 people at the first on the 10th tee and there were probably I would say at least 200 or 300 people there already at 6:10, so that was really, really nice to see.”
Shortly after the morning’s marquee group hit off, play was interrupted for the first time due to the weather, with rain flooding the 12th green as Garcia, Scott and Wade Ormsby waited to putt. The stoppage didn’t hurt the Spaniard though, who maintained his momentum early with a couple of key sand saves before the birdies began to flow.
“The couple up and downs early on were nice because they keep your round going,” Garcia said. “You know, you don't – feels like you make a couple bogeys there and then it drags a little bit, but fortunately we were able to do that.”
Garcia’s second birdie of the day came at the par-5 15th, which was nearly the undoing of playing partner Scott who blocked his tee shot before hitting a tree with his second. Getting a fortunate break to find himself back in the middle of the fairway, eventually saving par.
The next wasn’t much kinder to Australia’s only Green Jacket winner, who watched his tee shot tumble down the slope at the front of the green into the water, leading to a double bogey five that undid his two early birdies at the 11th and 12th holes. And it would continue to be a battle for Scott as he watched Garcia play the course he only played for the first time on Wednesday in clinical fashion.
“A good start and a good finish, mixed bag in the middle,” Scott said when asked to assess his opening round of one-under-par. “Some positive signs towards the end, which is good, so I can take that into tomorrow. I hit two shots that were really ordinary and they cost me three out there.”
What was positive for the Queenslander was his much-discussed unanchored long putter which made its tournament debut at Royal Pines. Scott didn’t hole everything he looked at by any means, but did make his share and was positive after the round.
“… it was good actually, really good,” he said of the reinsertion of his old flatstick. “Like I said, in the middle, well, just a couple holes on my back nine I had a couple putts that I would have liked to make from 15 feet or so that just slipped by, but other than that it was really solid.”
While Garcia would finish four shots in front of Scott he also missed his fair share of makeable putts on the grainy greens, which were hard to gauge for the players with the occasional heavy downpours slowing them significantly.
“The putt on 17 obviously was big after that rain delay,” Garcia said after taking the early lead. “The greens are tricky. You know, the grain, it's a little bit all over the place, so sometimes it's difficult to gauge how much it's going to affect it, but they're rolling nicely.”
The reigning Masters Champion looked set to be the leader on his own at the conclusion of the first round as the afternoon players battled the course, which was playing significantly longer than during the practice rounds. With the wet fairways offering no roll out. Before major drawcard Leishman and Senior started to roll in some birdies late in their rounds.
The Victorian closed eagle-birdie-par-birdie to pull alongside Garcia and delight the Gold Coast crowds, who were spread far and wide in the afternoon as potential contenders threw their hats in the ring.
“The back nine I played a lot better, a couple birdies,” Leishman said after the round. “That eagle was really nice. And then to follow it up with a birdie and birdie the last was really good.”
As the cameras and majority of crowds followed the pre-tournament favourites in the afternoon side of the draw, left hander Bland was going about his business with little to no spectators. Making birdie after birdie, including four in a row late in his front nine.
“Once I got to 6 under, then I knew it,” Bland said of taking the lead without much fanfare. “I was just trying to make a few more birdies coming in, especially on the par 5s there I was going for it in two but didn't pan out. And obviously it would have been nice to not make a bogey on the last, but 6 under is still 6 under.”
The South Australian started the back nine in similar fashion with back-to-back birdies at 10 and 11, only to not take numerous other chances he gave himself to add to his birdie tally, of which none came on the par-5s.
“… got off to a bit of a slow start early on just making a few pars,” Bland said. “Then hit a couple nice shots and converted them, which was nice to hit them in. Probably three or four for the day that were inside that three or four-foot range, so it was great to make those. Then kind of just kept making pars for a while until we got a couple on the back nine.”
A disappointing bogey at the final hole, after a muddy lie left of the fairway, left a sour taste in the mouth for Bland who, despite a solid season on the Japanese Tour, only got into the PGA field courtesy of an invite after not playing enough Australian events in 2016 to earn any status.
“Just an average golf shot,” Bland said of his second to 18. “I didn't do my homework with that green at all. I didn't really know what was long. All I saw in the book was what was deep and I thought I don't want to go down there. I probably hit the wrong club and the wrong shot.”
As Bland was making his way in almost unnoticed so was New South Welshman Jordan Zunic, who chipped in at the 9th, his final hole of the day, to earn a tie for the lead. A result he admitted surprised him a little after two missed cuts in his home state open and the Australian Open. But didn’t come completely out of the blue, with Zunic having improved his mental game of late, thanks in large part to a former Australian PGA champion.
“I would have to probably put it down to not long ago I read a book by Nick O'Hern, Tour Mentality, and my girlfriend Olivia, who's caddying for me, put me on to it, ” Zunic said of his round of 66. “She said, 'I read it, it's a great read, why don't you give it a read,' because mainly I've been struggling with more of my mindset, mental aspect of the game.”
Having read O’Hern’s book Zunic then played a practice round with the long-time PGA Tour player this week. Further improving the area of the game in which he has been struggling throughout 2017.
“Next thing you know, I'm having like an 18-hole mentor playing lesson with Nick O'Hern,” the former New Zealand Open winner said of his time with O’Hern. “I mean, what can I say, what an awesome bloke. He just gave me such an insight on how to think better. I was being really tough on myself, putting a lot of pressure on myself, and he just made things so simple for me. He's so golf smart.”
Although the 25-year-old didn’t expect to be leading one the biggest tournaments of the home summer after his recent play, he did admit to his play steadily improving in recent weeks.
“I feel like this was coming,” he said. “Obviously, I didn't know how soon it was going to come, but I'm glad. It's nice, it's good for the confidence, which has been a bit low lately, that's for sure.”
The change in confidence for the World No.636 might have come in part thanks to the relaxed Gold Coast atmosphere and music playing out across the course as the late finishers came in.
“You hear music, a song that you like and you bop around to it with your caddie and switch off in between, so I think it's great. And obviously to come in, I didn't realize obviously until I got in that I was tied for the lead. Yeah, it's exactly how you want to start a golf tournament so I'm absolutely over the moon.”
The tournament organisers would agree with Zunic’s positive thoughts about the start of the event and if round two at Royal Pines is anything like the first it will make for enthralling viewing, with all three of the tournaments main drawcards under par and a host of veterans and young rising stars in the mix.