Wilco Nienaber came out of the blocks quickly on Thursday as he carded a superb eight-under-par 63 to get on top of the first-round leader board of the Joburg Open at Randpark Golf Club on the Firethorn course.
He made an eagle, nine birdies and three bogeys in a round which had just five pars in it, and he made use of his prodigious length off the tee as well as Johannesburg’s high altitude to show how the course could be overpowered in the tournament co-sanctioned by the European Tour and the Sunshine Tour. He shared the first-round lead with Shaun Norris.
“The plan is definitely to try and overpower the course,” said Nienaber, “especially here in Johannesburg where the ball flies a mile. They have made the fairways quite narrow, though, so you have to be accurate. But it’s not too difficult to get the ball out of the thick stuff, especially if you’ve got a short iron in your hand.”
He started his round on the 10th, and he quickly showed what he was out to do with a birdie on the 11th. He followed that with an eagle on the par-five 12th, and two holes later, he had two more birdies under his belt.
Back to back bogeys on the 15th and 16th threatened to stall his momentum but he bounced back with a birdie at the 17th before rolling in from 20 feet on the 18th to close his front nine with another gain. That nine was characterised by just one par on his first hole of the day.
While there were four pars on his homeward nine from the first to the ninth, there was no let-up in the assault on the course. He nearly holed his second shot for an eagle at the par-four third but had to settle for a tap-in birdie.
And then came the shot that took the breath away: He smashed his tee shot an extraordinary 429 yards on the par-five fourth, and then hit his approach to five feet. He missed the eagle putt, but the birdie was secure.
Another one came on seven, and then he dropped on the eighth. But he pulled off another stupendous tee shot on nine, hitting the ball through the green on the 389-yard par-four. Again, he missed out on eagle, but the birdie was an easy one – and he was done at eight-under.
“I was expecting to hit it long on the fourth,” said Nienaber. “I’ve had a few go that long, and here at altitude, there is always the chance that I can get it out there. I’ve been getting progressively longer over the last little while, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to hit it that long.
“And on nine, I always like to take driver out here. I just like the shape of that hole, and it’s always tantalising to decide whether to go for it, especially when you’re on a low score and you’re finishing on that hole. Do you try for a little more? I did!”
Norris also started on 10, and had just and eagle on 12 and a birdie on 14 in his opening nine. But he picked up five birdies on his ay in to come home in 30 for a bogey-free 63.
“I’ve been hitting the ball nicely for a couple of months now, so it’s been good,” said Norris. “I’m enjoying my couple of weeks back home, playing my home course, putting some low scores out there and just building some confidence.
“It’s nice to put a low score out there. The course is looking good, so just take it on. You’ve got to give yourself opportunities and go for it. I had a sound game plan set to know when to attack and when to back off.”
The pair led by one from the in-form American Johannes Veerman, with former Cape Town Open champions Rhys Enoch pf Wales and Benjamin Follett-Smith of Zimbabwe, Adilson Da Silva of Brazil, and Richard McEvoy of England all another shot back on six-under-par.
“I haven’t played much in South Africa since I turned pro but it’s been great to be home, said Nienaber. “I’m just looking forward to the next three days and the next two weeks after.”
Watch out Randpark!