GEORGE, 19 February 2016 – Former Symetra Tour winner Melissa Eaton returned to form in sublime style with a six-under-par 66 in the opening round of the Sunshine Ladies Tour Dimension Data Ladies Challenge on Friday.
Lali Stander – The Port Shepstone golfer raced into a one stroke lead at George Golf Club, eclipsing fine earlier efforts from nine-time Sunshine Ladies Tour winner Lee-Anne Pace and 2014 champion Monique Smit, who carded 67 and 68 respectively.
England’s Rebecca Hudson – already a winner this season – and Maria Beautell from Spain produced a pair of 69’s, while South Korean rookie Carrie Park grabbed a share of sixth with defending champion Stacy Bregman with an opening two under 70.
Eaton finished second in last year’s Chase to the Investec Cup for Ladies in a season highlighted by three runner-up and five top 10 finishes in nine starts.
She has struggled for form this season, but eight birdies along the tight track and a solid putting performance was the perfect remedy for any lack of confidence.
“It’s a great start and a good foundation to build on for the rest of the tournament,” Eaton said.
The 31-year-old boxed a three-footer for birdie to get into red numbers at the first hole and hit a controlled wedge into the fourth to seven feet for her second gain.
She lost the advantage immediately when she couldn’t up-and-down for par at the fifth, but a superb birdie at nine sparked a four-birdie feast around the turn that rocketed Eaton into contention.
“I hit three-wood off the tee and had a good distance, about 90 meters, to the pin and I parked the ball six feet behind the flag,” Eaton said.
“It was a slippery downhill putt and when I knocked that one in the middle of the cup, it really boosted my confidence. Unfortunately, my chip shot at 13 caught the fringe and I had to give one back, but managed to pick up two more birdies at 16 and 17.
“For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been really anxious over birdie putts when I’ve been in contention this season. I worked hard at slowing my breathing before the Cape Town Ladies Open last week and it worked well. I had 25 putts in each round at Royal Cape and 23 putts here at George. When you putt well, your confidence grows and that lifts the rest of your game, as well.
“This past year’s been tough, but I’ve shown a lot of good stuff this season. Today it all came together and if I can have two more rounds like that I’ll be alright.”
Pace produced six birdies with her potent iron game, but her otherwise flawless performance was marred by a solitary bogey at the par four 12.
“I haven’t played the course in four years, but I remembered how tight the layout is,” said Pace. “My tee shot at 12 finished behind a tree and I tried to play it out, but hit another tree and I couldn’t up-and-down for par.
“I love this course, because it really tests your shot-making and I had a great day with the putter and the irons. Kingswood is going to be a different kettle of fish. I used to practice there all the time, and there are a lot of blind shots. The greens are a lot faster and you have to be on your game. I think the leaderboard could change quite dramatically tomorrow.”
Smit holed a 30-foot putt for birdie at 13 that also sparked a four-birdie run and pushed her into the title race in the R350 000 event.
“I hit a pitch shot at 14 to two feet and made the putt, holed an eight-footer at 15 for birdie and knocked in a five-footer at 16,” the Southern Cape favourite said.
“It’s nice to be within a shot or two of the lead this early in the tournament and hopefully, I can keep in touch at Kingswood tomorrow. Your course management has to be sharp at Kingswood and you need to be on top of your tee shots. A less aggressive approach will get you in the red numbers, that’s why I very seldom pull out driver at Kingswood. There is trouble on almost every hole.”