European Tour

Walters leads Dunhill Links, Els 'born in a bunker'

Justin Walters (Getty Images)
Justin Walters (Getty Images)

St Andrews - On a day in which an upbeat Ernie Els stated that he was "born in a bunker", South Africa's Justin Walters blitzed the famous Old Course here on Thursday with a spectacular nine-birdie, no-bogey 63 to take the first round lead in the $5-million Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.


The 38-year-old, who plays out of Country Club Johannesburg, started his round at the 10th hole where he made his first birdie. He also picked up shots at the 11th, 12th and 16th to move to four under. But he now faced what many regard as the toughest par-4 in golf, the infamous Road Hole.

But he birdied that too to be out in 31. On his inward half there were birdies at the third, fifth, sixth and ninth for a loop of 32 strokes so he was home in 63.

Walters isn't having the best of seasons and is a lowly 143rd in the Race to Dubai and he'll probably need to be in the top 120 come November to retain his card for next year. But all that could change if he can keep the form going at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and back at St Andrews over the next three rounds.

It's been an emotional year for Walters who lost his father this year, just a few years after his mother died.

"And before my dad passed away, I tore my calf muscle really badly at the Irish Open. So it's been hard but I just kind of decided not to feel sorry for myself, really, and kind of dust myself off and come in here. It has a healing quality. I don't know, it's hard to describe. I was here with my dad when we lost mum and just thought I was back with him."

Other South Africans to prosper at St Andrews were Jaco Ahlers on 65, George Coetzee on 66 (Coetzee the man who once shot a record-equalling 62 on the Old Course), and in-form Christiaan Bezuidenhout on 67. At Kingsbarns, Zander Lombard signed for that same number.

Meanwhile, an hour's drive away from St Andrews at Carnoustie, Els, 21 days away from his 50th birthday, carded a solid two-under-par 70 on one of Britain's toughest links.

Known for his fine sand play throughout his storied career, he played a magnificent bunker shot at the par-3 seventh, his 16th hole of the day, to save par.

He was steep up against the face of a pot bunker and needed to go over another trap to find the putting surface. But, with a touch of magic, he blasted to two-and-half-feet to get his three. "Yeah," he said, "that felt good.

But then you know of course I was born in a bunker!"

If there is one shot in the South African's memories that springs to mind as "the greatest" it was probably his miraculous bunker shot from what seemed like an impossible position to save par at the par-3 13th at Muirfield in the final round of the 2002 Open Championship.

That shot finally proved to be key to him winning the Open that year after a play-off with Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Thomas Levet, and it was uncannily similar to his up-and-down from the sand at Carnoustie's seventh Thursday.

"I started my round with a bogey and ended with one but any time you dip under par at Carnoustie you don't complain," the big man said.

"He's a genius," said pro-am partner Rurik Gobel, Johannesburg stockbroker, close friend of Els and a very useful golfer in his own right who had four birdies Thursday. "Ernie's got so much feels in those hands of his, whether it be playing a golf shot or, you know, gently holding a glass of red wine..."

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