Antalya - Erik van Rooyen wore a smile as wide as a four-lane highway after he signed for an opening four-under 67 to lead the eight-man South African challenge in the $7million Turkish Open on Thursday.
First off the tee in the sixth Rolex Series event, Van Rooyen was the first player to score a birdie and the first player to post a bogey-free round on day one, and he did playing the magnificent Carya Golf Club 'blind'.
"That's not too shabby," Van Rooyen quipped. "It the putts on the back nine had dropped, it could have been a 64 or 63, but you know, us golfers are always too greedy. If someone offered me 67 this morning, I would have taken it."
The 28-year-old Johannesburg golfer arrived in Antalya on a bit of a high after tying for 22nd in his first World Golf Championship.
A €75 944 (R1 262 925) pay-day in the HSBC Champions in China boosted the European Tour rookie to 34th in the Race to Dubai, but he came crashing off cloud nine when he woke up with painful neck spasms on Tuesday.
"It was really annoying. The timing couldn't be worse, because this is the business end of the season, but what can you do," said Van Rooyen. "I had physio, left the clubs in the bag and had more physio on Wednesday morning, but I didn't want to chance a practice round."
Instead, Van Rooyen and caddie JJ (Jeff Jackson) walked the course and plotted a strategy for the course.
"This is such a stunning course," he said. "Walking it reminded me a lot of Augusta somehow. The lush green fairways, the high, dense pine trees and the pine needles. Some of the holes are visually so narrow, but it's a fair course. The rough isn't nearly as penal as we had at Seshan Golf Club last week. The greens are running true and quite fast and the fairways are wide enough if you're hitting it well off the tee."
Van Rooyen hit the first tee shot in this year's tournament and made it count.
"I hit 3-iron down the middle and I laid it back so it would give me a better number into that pin, which was on top of the shelf," he said. "I had about 146-yards to the pin, but the ball flies a little further in the heat, so I hit pitching wedge and nearly holed out."
He boxed the four-foot putt for a birdie start and added a brace of birdies at 14 and 15.
"I made a really good birdie at the par-three after pulling the tee shot, but I got a nice kick off the bank to about 10 foot. Nearly holed my tee shot at the par five from about 90 yards out. Just had a tap-in for birdie," said Van Rooyen, who led the field through the turn with Irishman Paul Dunne.
"I birdied the first hole, so I guess I led from the start (laugh), but it was quite nice to see my name at the top through the turn. I hit the ball so well; really, really well on the back nine, and got good reads on the putts, but a lot of them just burned the hole. Managed to wrangle one more birdie out of the course at the fourth, but this is a good round to build on."
Van Rooyen will start the second round three shots behind pacesetter Dunne and two off the pace from Padraig Harrington from Ireland, defending champion Justin Rose from England and Dane Thorbjørn Olesen, the champion in 2016.
Evergreen Darren Fichardt produces a brilliant birdie-birdie finish to finish a further stroke adrift in joint 20th, while George Coetzee - the only other South African to post an under-par score - carded 70 to tie for 33rd.
Thomas Aiken shot 71, while Trevor Immelman and Dean Burmester carded one-over 72s.
Brandon Stone and Richard Sterne both had to fight hard for rounds of 74. Sterne started with three bogeys on the bounce and was six over after an eight at the par five 15th, but got it back to three-over with back-to-back birdies at seven and eight. Stone started with a double bogey and dropped on 12, but birdied 17 to turn two-over. He gave back three more shots on his back nine, but rescued his round with pair of birdies at eight and nine.