The number was meant to be 68. That was meant to be what led the first round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player. But Sergio Garcia clearly wasn’t in that meeting.
Garcia opened with a bogey-free eight-under-par 64 to lead “Africa’s Major” by four strokes on Thursday, and with a performance that left those chasing him shaking their heads in disbelief.
The two-time winner of the Nedbank Golf Challenge who earlier this week said he always felt a lot of love from South African golf fans received quite a bit of love from the Gary Player Country Club greens as he rolled in virtually everything he looked at.
“I made some good putts here and there,” said Garcia with the same kind of understatement that accompanied his assessment of his record-breaking Ryder Cup performance for Europe as, “I hope I helped the team”.
From his birdie at the first on a day that began in chilly weather and included the tricky wind that swirls around this golf course, Garcia was playing in his own world out there. He made four birdies in five holes over the turn, and then closed with three birdies in his final four holes.
South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel, Finland’s Mikko Korhonen and Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera posted the rounds of 68 most of the field felt was the best that was going to come out of Thursday’s conditions.
“That round was remarkable. I would’ve looked at four under as the mark. Sergio must have played flawless golf. The wind was changing direction all the time out there. Sergio is a proper ball striker and he obviously knows this course well,” said defending champion Branden Grace after opening with a two-under-par 70.
Most notably, Garcia used the knowledge of his many appearances here and his two victories in 2001 and 2003 to great effect when it came to handling the swirling winds that can make even the world’s best golfers second guess themselves over a shot.
Rory McIlroy certainly felt the conditions as he opened with a level-par 72, and Louis Oosthuizen felt he deserved more than the 69 he signed for. But Garcia used every ounce of his experience on this course to open up a sizeable lead.
“I probably wasn’t swinging it unbelievably well, but I kept it under control. I kept the ball in play all the time, which is difficult to do here. And you know, I managed to guess some of the winds here right; that is very, very difficult. When you can do that here, it’s nice to be able to shoot a score like I did,” said the Spaniard.
“I’m very pleased about the round. This is not a golf course that plays easy when it’s a little bit breezy like it was today. When it swirls, it’s even tougher.”
As the leading South African, Schwartzel said he felt he did the best he could on day one.
“You know, you put a bit of wind into it like today and they start to make these greens very tricky. You can never take this golf course for granted until the 72nd hole. It really tests you on every single hole and every single shot.”