Michael Hoey returned a one-under par round of 71 as Kristof Ulenaers made it a day to remember after posting a seven-under par 65 to lead by two on his professional debut at the Challenge de Cádiz.
42-year old Hoey has seen first-hand in recent years the soaring ability of those breaking through on the Challenge Tour but the Ulsterman held his own on the opening day in Spain, trading three birdies with two bogeys to sit in a tie for 32nd ahead of Friday’s second round.
It wasn’t such a good day for Conor O’Rourke and Conor Purcell who both have work to do if they want to hang around for the weekend. Naas pro O’Rourke, who’s banked successive top-50 finishes over the past fortnight, fired four birdies but also three bogeys and two doubles in a rollercoaster three-over 75, the same score as Portmarnock ace Purcell who carded three bogeys and no birdies in a disappointing effort. Tom McKibbin meanwhile posted two birdies but far too many mistakes in a five-over 77 with Paul McBride rounding out the Irish scoring at plus-six despite carding four birdies.
At the top, Belgian debutant Ulenaers came out firing on all cylinders with four birdies in his first five holes which he followed up with a stunning back nine of 32 to pull two-shots clear of Germany’s Yannik Paul, Spaniard Emilio Cuartero Blanco, Englishman Daniel Gavins and Italy’s Lorenzo Scalise who share second place on five-under par at Iberostar Real Club de Golf Novo Sancti Petri.
The 22-year-old’s only previous European Challenge Tour appearances came as an amateur on home soil at the KPMG Trophy, but he has now entered the next chapter of his career and has started it in the perfect way.
“I am very pleased with how I played but I honestly didn’t think the conditions were that easy,” he said. “I had to play really good golf to shoot seven under par, but the course is in great condition which helped.”
After starting on the tenth hole, Ulenaers dropped his only shot of the day at the 17th before bouncing back with an eagle on the second – his 11th – before finishing with two further birdies, including one at the tough par three ninth hole.
The University of North Texas graduate emphasised the close relationship he has with his caddie and the important part he played in his performance.
“I just came out here and played it shot by shot and I played some good golf,” he said. “Me and my caddie went through great course management to pick targets and I left myself inside six or eight feet and luckily made some great putts.
“That got my round going pretty early in the day and I was able to stretch that through on to the back nine where I made a 20-footer on the second for eagle which was nice and kept me going.”
Scotland’s Ewen Ferguson shares sixth place with Germany’s Hurly Long, Finland’s Oliver Lindell and Dutchman Robbie Van West on four under par, with a further nine players a shot further back in a tie for tenth place on three under par.
The second round of the Challenge de Cádiz will begin at 8:00am local time on Friday June 11, with Ulenaers teeing it up at 8:10am alongside American Peter Kuest and Czech Stanislav Matus.