Bekker clears head to take early SA Open lead

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Oliver Bekker put a fraught week behind him on Thursday as he carded a seven-under-par 65 at Gary Player Country Club to grab a share of the first-round lead in the 11th South African Open Championship.

Bekker made an eagle, seven birdies and two bogeys, and he topped the leaderboard together with Neil Schietekat, who had an eagle as well, together with six birdies and a bogey. The pair were a shot clear of Bryce Easton and Lyle Rowe on six-under. Hennie du Plessis, Albert Venter, Heinrich Bruiners and Hennie O’Kennedy were in a share of fifth on five-under.

Bekker, who is chairman of the Sunshine Tour players’ committee, has had to deal with the disruptions to the Joburg Open by the reactions to the new variant of COVID-19, the downgrading of the SA Open to a domestic event and the cancellation of the Alfred Dunhill Championship. But all that soon became less significant as the 36-year-old opened up his campaign for the second-oldest national open in the world on the 10th hole, and made three consecutive birdies.

“I was hitting it very close all day, really,” said Bekker. “I had a 10-footer for eagle on one, and a 24-footer for birdie on 17, but, besides that, all my birdie putts were from about five feet. When you can feel confident in your putter like that, the game feels in a good place, even around a challenging layout like Gary Player Country Club.”

Bekker put in a full stint on the Challenge Tour during the year in pursuit of his playing privileges on the European Tour, which has become the DP World Tour. He got that right after a lengthy and exacting campaign. “About the only thing I didn’t do was win,” he said. “Now that I have less on my mind after the craziness of last week, I felt like I played with a clear head, and less pressure than I have for a while, even though it’s the SA Open.

“Last week, I didn’t do so well in the Joburg Open. To give you an idea, I made 11 birdies in the two completed rounds, but I was on level-par. The game has been good, and it just needed something to happen for me.”

Schietekat also started his round on the 10th, and it was a quieter start than Bekker’s as he reached the turn in two-under 34 with three birdies and a bogey. But, like Bekker, he eagled the first and picked up three birdies in a row from four to six to come home in 31 and his share of the lead.

Defending champion Christiaan Bezuidenhout was in a share of 22nd on two-under-par. He had a frustrating round where he had birdie putts on all of the holes, and he made only three of them. On the only hole where he made a three-putt, he made his only bogey of the day. But it’s clear that he’s just a hot putting streak away from getting into a position from which he can successfully defend his title.

The leading amateur after the first round was Werner Deyzel on three-under in a share of 12th. Yurav Premlall was on two-under in a share of 22nd.