Caldwell heads the Irish pack on low-scoring day one at NMB Championship

Mark McGowan

Jonathan Caldwell (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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Jonathan Caldwell may have missed the cut in his first two Challenge Tour starts in 2024, but he’s off to a flyer at the Nelson Mandela Bay Championship at Humewood Golf Club in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Starting his tournament on the 10th hole, and with three par-5s in his first nine holes, he knew that the scoring would have to be done in the first half of the round and he did exactly that, making his first birdie at the par-5 11th, and then reeling off four in succession from the 13th. The highlight was yet to come, however, as he eagled the par-5 17th to move to -7 through eight and having covered the last five holes in six-under.

Having turned at seven-under, he also turned back into the wind and it was a case of hanging on on the front. Bogeys at two, five and eight – all par-4s – could easily have derailed the round, but he birdied the fourth and finished off on a very satisfactory note with another birdie at the par-4 ninth to post -6 and end the day tied for 17th.

“My first nine was pretty special,” he said afterwards. “I started on the back, which is obviously playing a lot easier, just with the way the wind is blowing and the par-5s are very gettable, seven under that nine and then one over, so two very different nines, but yeah, I’d have taken 66 starting today.

The coastal setting of Humewood Golf Club means that the wind is seldom not a factor, but after blowing moderately on day one, it’s set to pick up tomorrow and remain strong over the weekend.

“Very much so,” he replied when asked how different conditions would be in heavy wind, “I think tomorrow it’s to change direction, so I think we’ll find the front nine might score a little bit better than today and the back nine might be a little tougher as the par-5s are going to turn into the wind, but I mean, yeah, it was pretty calm, considering the weather we’ve had so far this week.”

Next best of the Irish is Dermot McElroy who recovered from an opening bogey to shoot three-under, while John Murphy, making his first start of the season, birdied three of his closing five holes to post a two-under 70 to straddle the provisional cutline in a tie for 66th.

Ronan Mullarney and Gary Hurley are locked in a tie for 86th at -1, the former making three birdies and two bogeys while the latter had a much more up-and-down day, making four birdies, an eagle, three bogeys and a double-bogey enroute to his 71.

Naas man Conor O’Rourke was making his first Challenge Tour start of the year, and though his level-par round may have left him with a lot of work to do if he’s to make the cut, it was memorable for another reason as he recorded a hole-in-one on the par-3 sixth.

Frenchman Martin Couvra posted a sensational 11-under-par 61 to climb into pole position,

The rookie’s remarkable round included three eagles and five birdies as he moved two shots clear of Sweden’s Björn Åkesson, South African Neil Schietekat and Australian Hayden Hopewell in second.

The 21-year-old, who became the first European to win all three of South Africa’s major amateur titles at the start of 2023, was delighted to go low again in the rainbow nation.

“It was just a perfect round today,” he said. “I played very well this morning and I’m so happy to get this low round posted on day one.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever made three eagles in the same round and it was just amazing. It feels so good and hopefully I can build on my strong start tomorrow.

“I have a lot of good memories in this country from my amateur career, with my caddie and with the French amateur team. I love South Africa and this is an amazing course.”

Couvra, who turned professional shortly after picking up his maiden Challenge Tour title at last year’s Challenge de España where he beat McElroy in a playoff, is looking forward to taking on the links layout again tomorrow in the stronger winds.


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