Excellent return to action sees Hurley head the Irish trio at Challenge Tour season-opener

Mark McGowan
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Gary Hurley (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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Gary Hurley’s last competitive start came almost nine months ago at the DP World Tour’s Soudal Open in Belgium, but after the extended break, he returned to action with a four-under 68 to finish day one tied for 16th at the season-opening SDC Championship in South Africa.

Playing at three-quarters of a mile above sea level at the Zebula Golf Estates course, the West Waterford man slotted back into the swing of things nicely over the opening six holes, birdieing both of the par-5s and making four pars, but a momentum-halting double bogey at the seventh was a snap back to reality, but he steadied the ship again to par his way to the turn.

Another birdie on the par-4 11th got him back to red figures, and then three birdies in the last four, including back-to-back bridies on 15 and 16 got him to the house at a very respectable -4, and he was understandably delighted with the way his tournament has started.

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“Yeah, felt good,” he said. “It was my first time back in a while, but I wasn’t overly nervous to be honest. I’ve done a lot of work on my game and with myself over the last six, seven months. So, yeah, I was just open and ready to get going. Yeah, and I enjoyed it.

“A bit up and down out there. I didn’t play brilliantly the whole way but had a really nice finish, really nice coming in. So, yeah, I’m happy with that.”

Playing at elevation means that the ball travels further than it would at sea level, so although the course measures 7,470 yards from the back tees, Hurley feels that driving and the wedge game are the keys to low scoring.

“I mean, if you drive it well, you’re going to give yourself a lot of chances,” he said, “but then drive it well and it’s on your wedge play and everything, there’s really not that many long irons.”

Dermot McElroy is next best of the Irish trio, making his way round in two under after trading a bogey with three birdies. The frustrating thing for the Ballymena man is that he managed to birdie just one of the four par-5s.

“It was ok,” McElroy said after his round, “my play was quite good, driving wasn’t the best but it was ok, you know, no real bad drives. Played pretty solid, had plenty of chances.

“My back nine, which is the front nine – didn’t really convert on the front nine. I holed a lot of nice parr putts, so a steady round.”

Ronan Mullarney has played in several Challenge Tour events already, but this is his first season with a Challenge Tour card and he got off to an excellent start, birdieing three of his opening five holes, but dropping a shot at the fourth, he still made the turn at -2. Two more birdies on 10 and 12 saw him climb into the provisional top 10 at -4, but after reeling off three more pars, he finished bogey, par, double-bogey to slip back to -1, ending on an extremely frustrating note.

It means that the Galway man ends day one in a tie for 71st, and will likely need to shoot a round of 70 or better on day two to ensure he starts the season with a made cut and give himself an opportunity to push his way into the top 10 over the weekend which he’ll require to make the field for next week’s Bain’s Whiskey Cape Town Open.

The big hitting South African Wilco Nienaber and five-time DP World Tour winner Alexander Levy from France share the first round lead at -8, the former going birdie, birdie, eagle on a three-hole stretch on his back nine, while Levy, who started on the 10th, reeled off six birdies in a row from two through seven to catapult himself up the leaderboard and join Nienaber at the top.

English duo Chris Paisley and Tom Shadbolt are among the quintet tied for third at -7.

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