Wilco Nienaber led the way in qualifying for the match play stage of The 123rd Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen and Murcar Links today.
On the historic championship’s first visit to the renowned North East links courses, Nienaber became the first South African to lead the qualifying stage since it was introduced in 1983.
The 18-year-old who lost out in a play-off to Nick Poppleton at the Brabazon Trophy earlier this month, carded four birdies on his homeward nine for a four-under-par 67 at the Balgownie Links to move to eight-under-par, two strokes clear of Viktor Hovland from Norway who recorded a five-under-par 65 at Murcar Links.
“When I heard I was going to play The Amateur Championship this year I was really excited. To finish at the top after the qualifying is great,” said Nienaber.
“I made good decisions from the tee, stuck to my game plan and hit the greens. When I missed a green I got up and down – I kept the momentum going and didn’t really make a lot of bogeys. The match play stage is a different game but winning this or finishing at the top makes me feel like I can beat the other guys, which is really nice. So we will see what happens this week.
Hovland, the highest-ranked player in the field, at fifth in the World Amateur Golf RankingTM, eagled the par four 11th at Murcar and picked up another five birdies in an excellent display of putting but was held back by bogeys on the first and last.
“To be honest leading into the week I was not feeling very confident,” admitted the Norwegian. “I did not hit the ball very good out there but I made a lot of putts and just kind of managed my way round there. I’m extremely pleased with the score but hopefully I can hit it a little better tomorrow.
“The only thing is that you can’t keep on making putts from everywhere, it’s got to stop some time but obviously it’s great to see that my bad golf can still get round this place really well.”
Canadian Sam Meek was in contention to finish as leading qualifier when he stood at six-under coming down the last at Murcar but in trying to drive the green at the 369-yard par four the 19-year-old found a greenside bunker from where he took two to escape, with his second clearing the green and going out of bounds, resulting in a treble bogey seven. The 19-year-old finished third on three-under-par.
Meek commented, “I was at six and the other guy was at eight (at the 18th) so I knew I had to do something to even have a chance. I figured I would try it. I had a really bad lie in the bunker, tried to hit it and missed it and then skulled it over the green and it was out of bounds.
“I’m still pleased with the two days and I had to give it a try. It feels good. The tournament starts over again so I have to try to progress through the matches and see where I end up. It was good to play well and I putted really well. I just want to keep feeding the momentum and go out there and do some damage.”
In a truly international leaderboard, Nienaber’s countryman Matt Saulez finished fourth on two-under-par while the Australian pair of Kyle Michel and Blake Collyer were a shot behind. On the same mark was the leading English qualifier Harry Hall and his compatriot Ben Hutchinson was on level par. Euan McIntosh continued his fine form to finish as the leading Scot on two-over-par alongside the St Andrews Links Trophy champion John Murphy from Ireland.
Walker Cup player Matthew Jordan, ranked seventh in the world, finished on three-over-par to qualify for the match play stage.
The cut for the championship fell on six-over-par with 77 players qualifying.
The reward for the winner of The Amateur Championship is a place in The 147th Open at Carnoustie in July and the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach. Traditionally, the Amateur Champion is also invited to compete in the Masters Tournament.
The match play stage gets underway at Royal Aberdeen tomorrow. Each match will consist of one round of 18 holes except the Final which will be over 36 holes. As part of The R&A’s efforts to improve pace of play ready golf was in operation in the stroke play qualifying rounds.