Justin Hicks of the United States sank a 65-footer for birdie on his final hole on Thursday at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship to move into a two-stroke lead after the first round at the 7,222-metre (7,898-yard) Eye of Africa Golf Estate.
That birdie on the par-three ninth – he started his round on the 10th – took him to nine-under-par 63, two shots clear of MJ Viljoen and Colin Nel, with last year’s runner-up Dean Burmester a further stroke back after his 66.
‘I didn’t hit my tee-shot to the ninth that well,” he said. “I didn’t want to go for the pin because I knew I couldn’t hold the ball at the back of the green, but I left myself a lot of work. But everything lined up well for me and it went in.’
That was the ninth birdie of a sparkling round, one which was only his third on the course after a practice round and a trip around it in the pro-am. He turned in five-under-par 31, and then made four more birdies coming home.
‘I drove it well and just tried to give myself opportunities out there,’ he said. ‘Fortunately the putter co-operated and I made a lot of great putts.
‘I think it’s a great golf course. I had no idea about what I was going to find out here. I was just going off what people had told me. I think they’ve done a magnificent job here and I think they could host just about any tournament they want on this course,’ he added.
Hicks is on a four-week trip to South Africa to look around and get some competitive golf after his career on the PGA Tour took a knock with two years of injury woes in 2015 and 2016 left him without his playing privileges in the United States.
He got into this week’s tournament on a sponsor’s invitation, and it’s given him a chance to seek to regain the kind of form he showed in 2014 when he finished inside the top 10 three times on the PGA Tour, with a best of second in the Barracuda Championship, just a week after he finished third in the RBC Canadian Open.
‘I lost my card last year when I was playing on a medical exemption,’ he said. ‘I started the year and then I had some additional problems. I’ve done a lot of work with a trainer back home, I’ve been patient and just tried to believe in myself. I hope it’s come back.’
Viljoen matched the best nine of his professional career as he closed with a 30 coming home. His 65 included three bogeys, and puts him in a great position.
Nel’s 65 had just one bogey, and that came from his only three-putt of the day, while Burmester was bogey-free.
But for the leader, it’s about keeping his run going for as long as possible. ‘I know you never really win a tournament on the first day,’ said Hicks, ‘but you try not to lose it. I’ve still got a lot of work to do for the rest of the week. I’ll keep trying to make more birdies, add them up at the end and hopefully it will be good enough.’
63 – Justin Hicks
65 – MJ Viljoen, Colin Nel
66 – Dean Burmester
67 – Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Louis de Jager