NAIROBI, Kenya, March 6- Alvaro Velasco is hoping to make it two Spanish winners in as many years at the Barclays Kenya Open after the former Challenge Tour Number One steamed into the first round lead at Karen Country Club courtesy of a six under par 66.
Velasco watched on in delight at the Nairobi venue last year when his close friend and fellow Catalonian Jordi Garcia Pinto claimed his maiden victory, and the 32 year old has admitted it proved an inspiration ahead of this week’s edition of one of the Challenge Tour’s longest-running events.
Velasco was certainly in inspired form in the African sun, although his start to the first event of the season was a turbulent one, opening with a bogey at the tenth hole before following that with a birdie at the 11th, a bogey at the 12th and another birdie at the 13th.
He steadied the ship, however, and picked up another shot at the 17th to reach the turn in one under par before embarking on a stunning back nine which began with three consecutive birdies and was topped off by back-to-back birdies at the seventh and eighth.
“It was a great round to start the season with,” said the Barcelona man. “It wasn’t easy, with the wind and the way the greens are getting firmer but I played pretty solid tee to green and my putter was working really nicely. I was very focussed on the round and kept it going.
“To be honest I didn’t look at any scores before I went out so I knew it was a good score but I didn’t see what people were posting out there, so I just kept to my game.
“I’ve had a few months off and that was very good for me, to get over last season and get ready for the new season. I have been practicing very well at home and I was very motivated to start competing again and this is a good week to start with.”
Velasco has not won since the crowning season of his career, when he claimed two titles en route to finishing top of the 2010 Challenge Tour Rankings – ahead of Thorbjørn Olesen among others – and he will be hoping the experience gained from those victories, as well as the memories of Garcia Pinto’s triumph here last season, will help end that wait this week.
“It was very inspiring for all the Spanish players to see Jordi win here last year so we are trying to follow in his footsteps and have another Spanish win,” he said. “It would be very special.
“It’s about four years since my last victory so I am working on it and hopefully this year some wins will come. I need to keep focussed on my game, get ready to compete and stay at my best and then the wins will come if I do the right things.
“The experience of winning helps and for me it feels nice to be at the top of the leaderboard. It means you are playing well and doing things properly so I cannot wait to be in that position again.”
Lasse Jensen, meanwhile, believes that he has some “unfinished business” at this tournament having been beaten in a play-off by Seve Benson at Muthaiga Golf Club, also in Nairobi, two years ago, and the Dane got off to a strong start as he carded a five under par 67 to share second place with Haydn Porteous.
The 29 year old finished with a flourish, courtesy of a birdie at the 17th and an eagle at the 18th, to card a five under par 67 and take a share of the lead alongside South African Haydn Porteous.
“I started out really well,” said Jensen. “After two holes I was under par and chasing more birdies but nothing happened for a while and I was moving back a little. I was just trying to find my game and find some more birdies. Then I hit a fantastic second shot from the woods at the 15th and that was the game-changer for me.
“Then I finished three, three, three and I was suddenly five under so I felt like I got my reward in the end. I’m very pleased with it, it’s a nice start.”
“There is a little bit of unfinished business because I was playing really well in that final round in Muthaiga two years ago. I was very comfortable in the lead and Seve just caught me in the last three holes and I missed out in the play-off.
“Maybe I can finish one better but I also know there are three rounds to go so I need to tell myself, ‘easy not, there is a lot of golf to be played’, but it’s nice to think those thoughts because it means you are in a good position.”
Former US Amateur Champion Byeong-hun An was on his own in fourth place after the Korean posted a four under par 68, while there were 13 players – including former Ryder Cup player Oliver Wilson – a shot further back on three under.
– By europeantour.com
1 VELASCO, Alvaro ESP 18 -6
T2 JENSEN, Lasse DEN 18 -5
T2 PORTEOUS, Haydn RSA 18 -5
4 AN, Byeong-hun KOR 18 -4
T5 STARK, Oscar SWE 18 -3
T5 EDBERG, Pelle SWE 18 -3
T5 WILSON, Oliver ENG 18 -3
T5 GUERRIER, Julien FRA 18 -3
T5 ULRICH, Damian SUI 18 -3
T5 WIDEGREN, Pontus SWE 18 -3