Top English amateur Toby Tree launched his bid for the Sanlam South African Amateur Championship title with a five-under-par 67 to share the first round lead of the 36-hole qualifier at Mowbray Golf Club on Sunday.
The 17-year-old from the Worthing Club in Sussex shares pole position with South Africans Conway Kunneke and Victor Lange, who in turn finished one stroke ahead of their countrymen Werner Theart, JP Strydom and CJ du Plessis.
The country’s leading amateur, Brandon Stone, carded a three under 69 to finish two off the pace in a group of eight players that also includes 2011 finalist and Scottish Golf Union Men’s Squad member, Paul Shields.
Tree aims to become the third Briton in as many years to lift the country’s most prestigious amateur title, following in the footsteps of Englishman Laurie Canter, who won it in 2010, and Michael Stewart who claimed it in an all-Scottish final last year.
“I have been targeting the Amateur since I arrived in South Africa,” said Tree, who has been staying with recent SA Stroke Play champion Haydn Porteous since early January.
“This is a very prestigious title and I would like to add this title to my achievements. Everything I’ve done over the last couple of weeks has been in preparation for this tournament; I wanted to give myself every opportunity to win.”
And his impressive list of accomplishments should worry the local challengers.
A former the U-14 and U-16 English Boys Stroke Play champion, Tree is a member of the English Boys Squad. He represented England in both the European Boys Team Championship and the Boys Home Invitational. In addition to 10 top 10 finishes in 2011, he also claimed the esteemed Sir Henry Cooper Junior Masters Golf Championship.
Although Tree failed to qualify in his first start at the KwaZulu-Natal Open, he soon showed his pedigree when he gained his first individual triumph on foreign soil with victory at the Gauteng North Open on 29 January. He finished a credible 12th at the SA Stroke Play at Glendower.
The Sussex golfer launched into action with an eagle at the par-five 10th and birdie at the 16th but bogeys at the second and fourth put the brakes on his flawless run.
“I pushed my drive too far right at the second and my third shot finished short of the green,” he said. “At the fourth, I hit a six-iron way, way right; short-sided myself again.”
But Tree got his round going again with a brace of birdies at the fifth and sixth.
“I had a solid routine birdie at the fifth and hit a wedge to six foot at the sixth and rolled the putt home to get the momentum going again. I closed out with another pair of birdies for a 67, so I am exactly where I wanted to put myself. I want to be in the thick of things later this week.”
Lange, the 2011 U-19 SA Boys champion, is also looking to go the distance.
“I was knocked out in the first round in 2010 and lost in the second round last year,” said the 17-year-old Royal Johannesburg and Kensington golfer. “This year I mean to go much further.”
Lange’s five-birdie binge over his first nine holes was interrupted by a lone bogey at the 15th. He added to his tally with birdies at the third and seventh, but gave another shot back at the par-five ninth, his closing hole. “My tee shot went into the trees left, my second into the trees right,” he said.
“I had to chip out and I two-putted for six. It was a stupid bogey, but that’s what happens if you let your concentration slip. I’ve learned a lot in the past year.
“My approach this week will be focussed around patience and golf management. You have to sink putts around here, but to do that, you have to put yourself in a good position and that means strategy and managing the wind.”
Four birdies offset by three dropped shots for a one-under-par 71 means Porteous will have to fight his way back into contention. “Not one of my best days, but the news isn’t all bad,” he said.
“I just need to get the putter warmed up for round two. Otherwise, I struck my irons well and I didn’t have too many problems elsewhere. At the end the day, the focus here is make the top 64 to compete in the match play.”