CAPE TOWN // The capricious wind swirling in off the Cape of Good Hope, which blew holes in practice round scores before the South African Open, suggested that Pearl Valley would prove a brute to 156 professionals from all corners of the world hoping to tame it.
Remarkably, those European Tour pros awoke yesterday morning to wallow in the most benign conditions. The course, home to the second oldest tournament, may have been in the doldrums but the competitors were not and blitzed it with a barrage of birdies and a cluster of eagles. Leading the way with a score of 64, a course record, was the relatively unknown visitor from Paraguay, Fabrizio Zanotti, who may well be on the way to improving a world ranking of 711.
In the first round at least, he could say he outplayed the powerful home contingent including major winners Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Trevor Immelman as well as a strong contingent of Europeans. Zanotti described his round of nine birdies and a bogey at 10 as "pretty close to perfect" and said he felt at home in the blistering hot conditions which surpass those in his home country at this time of the year.
His display earned him a one-stroke advantage to take into today's second round over another journeyman, Oskar Henningsson, of Sweden. His ranking is even lower than Zanotti's at 843. The best placed among the big guns was Rory Sabatini. After an opening 66 he had high hopes of keeping the winners' trophy on home soil. Sabbatini, a recent recruit to the European Tour, has employed his wife Amy as a substitute caddie this week.
"It means I have to be more patient when the putts don't drop," said Sabbatini. "She'll give me a harder time than my caddie does if I become frustrated. I'm going to try to make it easy for her here." Sabbatini's compatriot Ernie Els, who has won this event four times, is a stroke further back on 67. Els - known as the Big Easy - came off the course cursing his tee shot at the second hole (his 11th) which he drove out of bounds.
"It was one of my worst shots of the year," he reflected. "You can't hit it out of bounds there, but I did. It could have been lower but that one shot cost me." Els was level with another top South African hope Tim Clark, a winner last weekend, and one stroke behind Lee Westwood. The Englishman posted a balanced score of three birdies and no bogeys on the outward and inward halves to match that of his fellow countryman Ross McGowan several hours earlier. "It was really solid," Westwood said. "It was all good out there for me. I missed only one fairway but not by much."
McGowan's 66 was an exceptional effort considering he was one of the early starters before the wind died away. He hit 17 greens of the 18 greens in regulation and a chip in for eagle on his 14th hole gave him the impetus to card an impressive round. firstname.lastname@example.org