Kota Kinabalu [SABAH]: A birdie blitz on the front nine paved the way for Malaysia’s Khor Kheng Hwai to set the early pace at the Warisan Harta Sabah Masters on Wednesday.
Precision iron play saw the 31-year-old return with a flawless effort of six-under 65, highlighted by five birdies in an outward 31, to share the opening round lead with Thailand’s Namchok Tantipokhakul.
Namchok, a former ASEAN PGA Tour Order of Merit champion, recorded the tournament’s first hole-in-one as he eagled the par-three fourth at the Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club, in addition to six birdies against two bogeys on his card.
The leading pair are three strokes clear of Thailand’s Nirun Sae-Ung with local Sabahan hope Solomon Emilio Rosidin and another Thai Songthum Anusasananun tied for fourth on matching 69s.
Titleholder Mardan Mamat from Singapore settled for a 71 while Malaysian number one Danny Chia was a further shot back in the US$100,000 tournament, jointly sanctioned by the ASEAN PGA Tour and the Asian Development Tour.
Khor, who won his first ASEAN PGA Tour title at the PGM Penang Championship in September, is hoping to carry his late-season form into the new campaign.
He managed top-three finishes in his last two starts of 2015 and believes that he is ripe for another win.
“My ball striking on the front nine was just phenomenal. All five of my birdies on the front nine came from inside five feet. I wielded my irons with a lot of confidence and despite the wind picking up on the back nine, I managed to negotiate the tougher conditions and notched another birdie at the last to cap what was a superb round,” said Khor.
“This is my first week out and a good performance will set the tone for the season. Probably my mind is still on holiday mode but the game remains sharp. The win in Penang last year took a lot of pressure off my shoulders and I’m enjoying the grind now. I’ve raised my target for the year and hopefully, I can get a head start on that,” he added.
With the top-three players on the final ASEAN PGA Tour Order of Merit earning a place in the US$1 million SMBC Singapore Open at the end of the month, Khor knows that a win here could propel him upwards from his current 11th placing on the money list.
“It’s a long shot but you know, it would be great to qualify and that’s the sort of event you want to play as a professional. But I’m keeping that at the back of my head and just focusing on one round at a time. I’ve learnt that it’s best to keep my expectations in check and let my game do the work,” shared Khor.
Namchok was elated with his ace which propelled into the joint lead.
“I’m very happy with that round, given that I dropped a bogey on the opening hole. The hole-in-one was a pleasant surprise, coming so early in the round. I just hit my eight-iron and I saw it bounce and roll straight into the hole. That really perked me up and my game came together after that,” said the three-time ASEAN PGA Tour winner, who managed a good run after the turn with three straight birdies.
Namchok burst onto the professional in 2009 when he won twice on the ASEAN PGA Tour en-route to claiming the Order of Merit title.
“I’m just happy to play on the ASEAN PGA Tour after a while and it was nice to meet many friends from around the region. I put zero pressure on myself, the goal is just to have fun this week,” he said.
Leading first round scores (Par-71) >
Malaysian unless stated
65 – Khor Kheng Hwai, Namchok Tantipokhakul (THA)
68 – Nirun Sae-ueng (THA)
69 – Songthum Anusasananun (THA), Solomon Emilio Rosidin,
70 – Mitchell Slorach (SIN), Koh Dengshan (SIN), Casey O’Toole (USA), Rattanon Wannasrichan (THA)
71 – Low Khai Jei (A), Ben Leong, Phachara Khongwatmai (THA), Mardan Mamat (SIN), Alwarith Damian, Antonio Lascuna Jr (PHI), Nattapong Putta (THA) , Piya Swangarunporn (THA), Jay Bayron (PHI), Kemarol Baharin