Bland begins climb back to top with share of lead at Prague Golf Challenge

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Stoneham’s Richard Bland shared the lead at the Prague Golf Challenge after a first round 65. Picture by ANDREW GRIFFIN / AMG PICTURES

HAMPSHIRE’S Richard Bland was one of five players tied for the first round lead at the Prague Golf Challenge after carding seven-under par rounds of 65 at Prague City Golf.

Bland reeled off four birdies in a row starting at the 10th, in the Czech Republic, and after dropping a shot at the 18th, bounced back with further birdies at the third, fourth, sixth and seventh.

Bland took some time off after losing his card last season – the first time that had happened since 2007. Ironically that prompted him to drop down to the Challenge Tour and he bounced back with a three top five finishes to earn promotion back to the European Tour.

The veteran of 450 European Tour events was in no mood to call time on his career after failing to earn at Tour card at Qualifying School in November.

He said late last year: “It’s tough and incredibly disappointing, but I certainly don’t feel it’s the end of the road.

“There’s still some doors open. They’re not as lucrative as others, but it’s up to me to play to the level I know I can still play at.

“If I do that, I firmly believe in 2020 I’ll be back on the European Tour,” said the Stoneham member, who won the Hampshire Amateur Championship at the Southampton club in 1994.

Bland, who has earned €5.2million since making his tour debut in 1998, slipped to 672 on the Official World Golf rankings just two years after he made it to the season-ending Race To Dubai and finished fourth at the 2017 British Masters.

In total, Bland, who lost a play-off for the Irish Open with South African Darren Fichardt, in 2002, has earned €262,131 in 102 events on the Challenge Tour, including two so far this season.

Early starters Ewen Ferguson and Billy Spooner set the target at 65 and it looked as though the two of them would be the men to catch with no one making a charge as the afternoon elapsed.

Ferguson said: “It was a good round. I’ve been practicing quite well lately and I had quite a solid week last week. Obviously, there’s a long way to go but it’s good to get off to a nice start.

“The best bit was chipping in on 16. I short-sided myself and I was a bit annoyed, but the greens are soft enough where you can get one close and I pitched it and it fell right in with the last roll of the ball.

“I love the course, I think it’s beautiful. I actually played with the greenkeeper yesterday in the pro-am and he was giving me a few little pointers. I saw him on the course today and he saw I was playing alright so he gave me a thumbs up, which was quite nice.

“He really knew the course inside out. He said: ‘The green on number 10 is really slow’ and I got on 10 today and thought: ‘Aye, he’s right!’

“I want to kick on this year but I’m in no rush, I just want to play well. With a few other Scots doing well, it would be nice to maybe get a win somewhere along the line.

Ferguson – the only player to have held the British Boys Championships and both the Scottish Boys Matchplay and the Scottish Boys Championship after his hat-trick of wins in 2013 – added: “I just need to keep trying as hard as I can and maybe try and use some of the other boys, like Connor [Syme] in Turkey, as inspiration.”

However, Wil Besseling, Hampshire’s Richard Bland and Jonas Kölbing made late dashes to the top of the leaderboard with the latter posting four birdies, an eagle and a bogey in his final six holes.

Ferguson, who turned pro in 2016 after playing in the 2015 Walker Cup win over the USA at Royal Lytham, was one of only two men to post bogey-free rounds on day one – the other being Englishman Laurie Canter – while Dutchman Besseling signed off with an excellent birdie at the last to ensure he would share the lead going into the second day.

Besseling said: “I played very well. I think the key point here is there are a lot of carries from the tee which are about 260-265 yards. I was driving it really well and I was able to carry them all. It makes this course a lot different to guys who are not able to do that.

“From there on, I was very relaxed and played solid from the start. I gave myself a lot of chances and I was only in trouble once on six and then didn’t get up and down on the par three earlier.

“I’m very pleased with where my game is and also mentally as well. It was very nice to finish with a birdie and card a 65 to start with.

“I finished well last week, my last round was very good and I brought that game here this week. Turkey was nice and tied third was a great way to open the season.

“I’m feeling better than last year so hopefully I can get some more good results after Turkey. I’m looking forward to the next three days and the rest of the season.”

One shot behind the quintet at the top of the leaderboard is Dane Benjamin Poke on six under who, along with playing partner Robin Dawson, began his round in scintillating fashion with five birdies in his first five holes before making the turn at seven under. Two bogeys and a single gain on his back nine means he will start the second round one shot back.

There were mixed emotions for Frenchman Mathieu Decottignies-Lafon who finished his round with a hole-in-one on the 18th, however missed out on the car which will be awarded to the first player who manages to ace it, as the giveaway only takes place over the weekend.

Ewen Ferguson who share the lead after the first round of the Prague Golf Challenge on the Challenge Tour. Picture by GETTY IMAGES
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