Most people venture to Fiji to relax and revive their energy levels, yet the leaders of the Fiji International are using the tournament to breathe life into their careers as a trio of players ranked outside the world’s top-1,000 hold down the top three places on the leaderboard.
Victorian Anthony Houston (pictured above) carded a course-record-equalling 7-under 65 at Natadola Bay Golf Course to lead veteran West Australian Stephen Leaney and Newcastle’s Jake Higginbottom by a shot after the first round of the $1.5 million tournament co-sanctioned with the European Tour. Leaney took advantage of a morning tee-time in the calmer conditions on the south-west corner of the island of Viti Levu, while Houston and Higginbottom will enjoy the same advantage tomorrow after toiling in today’s afternoon breezes.
Trailing the top trio at 5-under is a quintet of familiar and not-so familiar names: Matthew Giles, Aaron Pike, Aaron Wilkin, Damien Jordan and Jason Norris, who went out in the first group of the day. Sitting at 4-under are two more players, Ryan Haller and Matthew Griffin, who is a past winner at Natadola Bay but in the lesser Fiji Open in 2009. All told, 56 players broke par as the course and weather co-operated more agreeably than in any of the eight previous rounds of this young tournament.
Tournament drawcard Brandt Snedeker shot a 3-under 69, a score matched by compatriot Boo Weekley, while his close mate Steven Bowditch carded three double-bogeys but also three 2s in a 78. Another American visitor in Heath Slocum began with a 70, as did Fiji’s Vijay Singh. At the other end of the scale, Kiwi Vaughan McCall sat 32-over-par through 17 holes before being disqualified rather than signing for a three-figure score. The rookie pro’s opening six scores at the tight and windswept Natadola Bay course read: 8-6-4-5-12-10. McCall also shot a 93 at the New Zealand Open in March.
Houston, ranked No.1,434 in the world, is the posterboy for what the co-sanctioned version of the Fiji International can do for a fledgling player. Domiciled on the PGA Tour of Australasia in 2016 after a stint playing the PGA Tour China last year, the 24-year-old can make a statement and fortify his career with a victory in Fiji, which offers an exemption in Europe. Although that sounds like it’s far from the Victorian’s mind for now.
“I didn’t even know it was a course record until I got into the scorers’ hut and the lady told me; it was a good feeling,” said Houston, whose best result this year is a tie for third at the Victorian PGA after he topped the Australasian Tour’s qualifying school.
“I didn’t even know it was a course record until I got into the scorers’ hut and the lady told me; it was a good feeling.” - Anthony Houston
“It’s actually Mum’s birthday so I told her I would play as well as possible for her, so I didn’t want to drop any shots. I got off to a really good start, when it was windy as well; I was 5-under through seven holes. I had a rough patch mid-round but I held it together and made a few birdies coming home.
“It’s always nice to birdie the last, it was the highlight of my round. I had 50 metres in to the last and it’s my worst shot by far. So to execute that under pressure when you know you’re up there was really satisfying.”
Leaney (ranked No.1,054) and Higginbottom (1,390th) have similar tales of woe to tell, although in truth the 2003 US Open runner-up is at the opposite end of the career spectrum to Higginbottom, who turns 23 next week.
“I don’t play fulltime anymore; I’d rather watch my kids grow up, but I still work hard,” Leaney said. “I’ve been working hard in the gym for the past 13 months so when I do come out and play I’m still competitive. It’s nice to see the work paying off.”
The Champions Tour is on the horizon for 47-year-old Leaney, who began working with the South Australian cricket team to prepare for a tilt at the over-50s circuit. Like Houston, he shared third at the Victorian PGA earlier in the year but also ran fourth at his most recent start, the Northern Territory PGA.
“I turn 48 next March so I’ve only got two years until seniors and that’s what these next two-and-a-half years are about. I know Tim Nielsen very well, the ex-Australian cricket coach, and I was struggling about this time last year in Queensland. He said, ‘Look, you’ve either got to give it away or you’ve got to rededicate yourself. He invited me to come down there and they were all keen to have me there, so it’s nice.”
Higginbottom burst to prominence by winning the New Zealand Open as an amateur in 2012. He turned pro two days later but has enjoyed mixed results since. He is another to have tackled the PGA Tour China this year, alas with nothing better than a tie for 19th to show for it. The Novocastrian has history at the Fiji International, having pushed inaugural winner Steven Jeffress to the finish line two years ago.
With a little more wind in the forecast, Houston and Higginbottom have the chance to get out early and distance themselves from the pack in the second round. Looking farther ahead than that, however, seems like the last thing occupying the leaders’ thoughts.