Hoey and Clarke on the tails of leaders
Michael Hoey had a red-hot finish while Darren Clarke was left peppering by a slip-up on 18 — yet both Ulster aces performed brightly enough on the first day of the Africa Open to suggest either could go one better than last year's tie for second place in East London.
Former Walker Cup star Hoey (30), who clinched his maiden European Tour victory at April's Portuguese Open, secured Irish bragging rights as three birdies in the final four holes of his opening 68 earned him a share of 10th on five under par, just two strokes off the tournament lead.
Despite that infuriating bogey five at the last, Clarke was no less impressive than his fellow countryman as he played the back nine at East London in four under par, including a sparkling string of five birdies in seven holes.
It took the 40-year-old Ulsterman nine holes to rediscover his rhythm but once he did, Clarke swung with the authority and confidence of old and, importantly, putted well as he compiled a promising first-round 69.
Clarke's overriding ambition is to regain his place on the European Ryder Cup team this year. Though he had just three top-10 finishes on the European Tour in 2009, all of them were achieved in the latter half of the year and he looks in the right form and physical condition to complete his renaissance in the new season.
The bogey at the last came right out of the blue, especially after such a sweet birdie two at 17, where Clarke hit a lovely tee shot over the flag and holed out from 20 feet.
After pulling his final tee shot left of the fairway, Clarke then found a bunker and failed to get up and down for par.
Five players shared the lead on seven-under, including Richard Sterne (28), the five-times European Tour-winner from South Africa, who showed just how well he knows his way around this classy little track by shooting a course-record 61 in last year's tournament.
Dane Mark Haastrup, Sweden's Patrik Sjoland and two of Sterne's fellow countrymen, the big-hitting ‘Titch' Moore and 30-year-old Trevor Fisher Junior, shared his lead and the limelight.
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry have won the professional and amateur player of the year awards at the Irish Golf Writers’ Association Awards.