Stenson takes early lead at Sun City

Sweden’s Henrik Stenson took advantage of collapses by Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington to lead the first round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge by one stroke at the Gary Player Country Club course on Thursday.

Stenson opened with a bogey free five-under-par 67 to head the field on his debut in the 12-man invitation tournament, with defending champion Jim Furyk his nearest challenger after a 68.

Ireland’s Padraig Harrington took the early lead and climbed to five under par through 13 holes following a superb run of scoring in which he birdied four holes in succession from the seventh. But bogeys at holes 14 and 15 saw him finish the round with a three-under-par 69.

Els worked his way to four under par through 14 holes before he also suffered at the hands of the tough closing stretch.

Els dropped four shots in three holes when he bogeyed the 15th, double bogeyed the short 16th and then bogeyed the treacherous 17th to open with a level-par 72.

But Stenson managed his game superbly through a bout of flu and playing with new clubs and a new golf ball on a new course.

“There were a lot of new things out there,” he said. “I also hadn’t practised for a week before this tournament, so I’ve got no complaints.”

Stenson dismissed the fact that the tournament has rarely been kind to first-timers, with only four players having won on debut in its 26-year history, the last being Mark McNulty in 1986.

“Sure, this is like a mini-Major.
You’ve got the best players in the world here so it will be tough. But I don’t believe that just because it’s my first time that I can’t win.”

While disappointed with his back nine, Harrington was not overly concerned about his performance on day one.

“I played well all day and just got ahead of myself on those holes,” he said. “But there’s no difference in being three under or five under at this stage. We all know it’s going to come down to the final nine holes on Sunday. So you just needed to put a decent score on the board today [Thursday] and not blow yourself out.”

Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel led the South African challenge with their rounds of two-under-par 70, while Trevor Immelman opened with a 71.

Immelman admitted to feeling “very nervous” on the first tee despite having already played in a President’s Cup and beaten Tiger Woods down the stretch for his maiden US PGA Tour title in the Western Open this year.

“This is a big tournament for me and as a South African you want to bring your best game here,” said Immelman.

“I’ve watched the tournament all these years so I know its history. I respect all the winners and the course Gary Player has designed. Then there’s the good luck messages from everyone you know. So if you put all of that together you can make quite a big deal out of it. It would be nice if I could find a bit of game over the next couple of days.”—Sapa

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