KARACHI: There was something driving Ahmed Baig at the Karachi Golf Course on Thursday.
A picture of concentration as he sank four straight birdies in his opening six holes, he looked like a man on a mission.
It wasn’t just him though.
It was the case with all the Pakistan golfers taking part in the opening round of the UMA-CNS Open Asian Tour Golf Championship.
“Most of the local pros are hurt because they were snubbed by the organisers at the welcome dinner and the launch press conference,” Ahmed told Dawn. “Furthermore, the lunch area set today for the local golfers and the foreign golfers was different.
“With the Asian Tour coming back to Pakistan after such a long time, this was a time for our respected pros to get the limelight instead it’s the foreign golfers who are being preferentially treated.
“I believe most of us went in today to show that we aren’t in any way behind the foreigners who are taking part.”
Ahmed, not even a professional golfer yet, was the star on Thursday.
A stunning five-under 67 gave the 19-year-old a surprise share of the lead with Thailand’s Namchok Tantipokakhul and Pakistan a spot at the top after the first round.
The leading local hope, Shabbir Iqbal, was in a four-way tie with Indian Honey Baisoya, James Ryan Lam of the Philippines and Thailand’s Pawin Ingkrapradit.
Three Pakistani golfers namely Mohammad Munir — who played bogey-free round, Shahid Javed Khan and Sunny Masih were locked at 69 with Thailand’s Suradis Yongcharoenchai — the highest-ranked player at the event — and his compatriot Jakraphan Premsirigorn.
A stroke behind are Pakistan’s Dilshad Ali and Imdad Hussain, England’s Mathew Killen, Singaporean Koh Deng Shan and Thailand’s Nirun Sae-Ueng.
As many as 10 golfers played one-under with three Pakistani golfers among them including Talib Hussain, Taimoor Khan and Mohammad Naeem. A trio of Thai golfers also fired a 71 namely Suttijet Kooratanapisan, Piya Swangarunporn and Tirawat Kaewsiribandit. Three-time Asian Tour winner Marcus Both of Australia and two-time winner Siddikur Rahman of Bangladesh, Indian Amandeep Johl and Spain’s Javier Gallegos are also four shots off the lead.
Matloob Ahmed and Waheed Baloch were among seven Pakistani golfers and among a group of 16 who ended with a par score.
With five strokes separating 42 players, it promises to be a riveting battle for the title.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Ahmed when asked how much he fancies his chances. “I’ve to be thoroughly consistent over the next three rounds to have any chance because this is a high-level field.”
The sun had just risen when Pakistan’s Afsar Ali teed off the championship, the first Asian Tour event in the country for 11 years. Yet there was none of the fanfare that was seen at the launch ceremony.
Outside the KGC, a huge banner said it was time for cricket to step aside and let golf take centre stage. Yet, with no public turning up for the opening round, it was pretty evident that golf has to go a long way to rival cricket in terms of popularity in the country.
Youngsters like Ahmed Baig could be key in increasing the popularity of the sport.
Not many had thought Ahmed would be leading the charge for a home winner at the event. But on a sweltering day, he was in blistering form.
Birdies on holes two to five were all long putts and it seemed he would leave the rest of the competition in his wake.
A bogey on the seventh hole impeded his progress but he hit back with successive birdies on the 13th and 14th holes to finish level with Namchok, who hit eight birdies.
“I putted well today which saved the round,” he said. “I hope to do just as well tomorrow.”
Shabbir, who won the local leg of the CNS Open two weeks ago at the KGC, could’ve finished at the top of the leaderboard. Having hit five birdies, only a bogey on the final hole denied him that.
“I won here two weeks ago and I’m hitting the ball solidly and putting well which is good,” said Shabbir. “I will try to play better than last week.”
Baisoya sank a 30-footer for a birdie on the ninth hole, the pick of the six birdies he struck on the day. Pawin also struck six birdies with Lam hitting five.
Like Shabbir, Shahid was also at one point at five-under.
His sixth birdie of the round on the 14th set him up well to finish atop the leaderboard. But bogeys on the 16th and 18th hole meant he ended two shots adrift of the leaders.
Jakraphan hit five birdies but two bogeys consigned him to a share of third place.
Birdies on the second, 10th and 17th hole holes were good enough for Munir to end level with Shahid and Jakraphan while Suradit and Sunny hit four birdies each.
With 17 Pakistani golfers among the top 42, and one atop the leaderboard, it very much seems like a statement of intent. Hurt by the organisers’ snub, they’re hitting back on the course.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018