South Africa's top-ranked amateur Wilco Nienaber was in ascendancy again as the highly anticipated 123rd Amateur Championship got under way at Royal Aberdeen and Murcar Links on Monday.
A total of 288 amateurs from 38 countries started the first round of the strokeplay qualifier in the East of Scotland and the 18-year-old Nienaber led a 10-strong GolfRSA National Squad challenge into battle at the Murcar Links.
Just three weeks after he lost the Brabazon Trophy in a playoff, Nienaber fired an impressive four-under-par 66 to pull two shots clear of the field.
'The wind was already gusting when we reached the course,' said Nienaber, who got off to a fast start with back-to-back birdies. 'I hit a good second into the first green and boxed a five-metre putt for a birdie start and a decent approach to four metres at the second for my next birdie.
'The 3rd hole was my momentum hole. We had a long wait at the third tee and it was tough to keep focused. I hit a good tee shot, but it bounced the wrong way into the rough. I aimed for the big slope next to the green, but missed and finished at the top of the slope. I chipped it close, though, and made the par putt. That was a big save.'
He notched three more birdies to turn four under.
'After a birdie at 4th, I hit a good tee shot just left of the green at 5th, but it rolled all the way down the slope into a tough spot,' he said. 'I chipped it close, but missed the par putt. I hit a good approach into 6th and made the five-footer for birdie.
'I hit it to two metres at 8th and boxed the birdie putt and had a solid par at 9th. I made a good bogey at 10th after I hit a poor second shot and a great two-putt par at 12th to keep the round going. My first putt was two metres left, but the wind pushed the ball four metres right past the hole.
'The 14th is actually a par five. I hit driver off the tee right into the teeth of the wind and 5-iron into the green and made the 10-metre putt for birdie. I had a really good up-and-down for par at 15th after I left my second short and holed a three-metre putt at 16th for another solid par.
'I hit my second into the bunker, but saved par with a great trap-shot to a metre. At the last hole, I hit a good drive into the wind, a good approach to three metres, but just missed the birdie putt. It was tough out there and you really had to grind to keep the positive momentum going, but it's great to have a bit of a cushion when we attack Royal Aberdeen today.'
The South African led by two from Canadian Sam Meek and Australia's David Micheluzzi and was four shots clear of Viktor Hovland from Norway, the highest ranked player in the field at fifth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Malcolm Mitchell cancelled four bogeys and shaved one shot off a double bogey at the par-four 13th with a birdie at the 14th to grab a share of 13th with a one-over 71. Fellow KwaZulu-Natal player Matt Saulez was very solid with 16 pars and he tied for 22nd on two over.
George golfer Jovan Rebula had birdies at the 2nd and 9th, but his flawless run ended with three bogeys on the bounce after the turn. He rallied with a birdie at the 13th but dropped again at the 16th and a double bogey finish saw the Auburn University student tie for 38th on three over.
Fellow Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation golfer Therion Nel was one under through nine, but he bogeyed the 10th and dropped four shots over the last three holes for a 74 that earned the Bloemfontein golfer a share of 61st on four over.
Clayton Mansfield was the last man out for the GolfRSA National Squad. The KwaZulu-Natal golfer had a trio of bogeys during each loop, but a birdie at the par-four 5th for a 75 earned him a share of 92nd.
The rest of the squad battled in the very strong breeze that created many challenges for the large field at both courses.
Luca Filippi from Western Province, Southern Cape's Christo Lamprecht and Garrick Higgo from Boland posted rounds of 77 and Jayden Schaper from Ekurhuleni carded an 81.
Following Tuesday's final round of the strokeplay qualifier, the field will be cut to the top 64 and ties for the matchplay stage.
The 2018 Amateur champion will secure a spot in the 147th Open at Carnoustie next month, as well as a place in next year's Masters Tournament and the US Open at Pebble Beach.
GolfRSA Squad First Round Scores
66 - Wilco Nienaber
71- Malcolm Mitchell
72- Matt Saulez
73- Jovan Rebula
74- Therion Nel
75- Clayton Mansfield
77- Christo Lamprecht, Garrick Higgo, Luca Filippi
81- Jayden Schaper