The French Open’s recent reputation for springing surprises continued today when Welshman Kyron Sullivan and South African James Kamte, ranked only 421st and 386th in the world, took the first-round lead at Le Golf National.
While former winner Philip Walton crashed to an horrendous 89 including a 12 on the 18th – not even the worst score of the day there – the two little-known players returned six under-par 65s.
Sullivan, a 31-year-old from Cardiff, is in his first full season on the European circuit, having graduated from the “second division” Challenge Tour. He stands 176th on the Order of Merit.
Playing in the last group of the day, there were only three people in a stand designed for 300 when he completed one of only two bogey-free rounds.
He said: “A lot of guys from the Challenge Tour are thinking about making the cut, but you have to put that out of your mind and try to get into contention.”
Kamte was pushed by his caddie into attempting the 36-hole qualifying event earlier this month and is already grateful.
“It’s one of those things you dream about,” said the 24-year-old, who became known as “The Cobra” for his deadly finishing in his soccer-playing days.
“I think 80% of people I knew were very surprised when I switched sports. They thought I could be big in soccer, but thank God I chose golf.”
He will also be thanking Ernie Els if he goes on to win.
“Ernie did everything for us with his foundation for under-privileged kids,” added Kamte. “He flew us around, paid for our accommodation, gave us pocket money, gave us clubs. We were absolutely spoilt and they had to drag me out.”
While it is still unlikely that he will be lifting the trophy on Sunday he would have his confidence boosted by looking at the last four names on it.
Champions in 2002 and 2003 were English pair Malcolm Mackenzie and Phil Golding. They had never won before in 508 and 200 previous starts on the European Tour, while 2004 winner Jean-Francois Remesy had one victory in over 200 events and last year John Bickerton triumphed after just one win in more than 300.
He and Sullivan are one ahead of England’s Graeme Storm and Benn Barham and Swedes Steven Jeppesen and Christian Nilsson.
But Colin Montgomerie, who won seven years ago, was perfectly content with his start. Hitting 16 greens in regulation, Montgomerie, determined to reverse things after his 82 at the US Open two weeks ago, posted a 68 for a share of eighth spot.
Paul McGinley was five under with six to play, but then bogeyed the 13th, 17th and 18th for a 69, while a limping Lee Westwood, the other member of last September’s Ryder Cup side in the field, ignored the suggestion of his caddie to pull out and battled his way to a level-par 71.
The Worksop golfer had already arranged a scan for Monday on his left knee and aggravated the injury on the eve of the event.
“It’s a shame I couldn’t give it everything because I’m hitting the ball well,” commented Westwood. “I’ve not really completed a swing all day. It’s been getting worse recently and I felt it tweak on the range.”
But even at three over after five holes he refused to call it a day.
“It didn’t enter my head,” he said after grabbing four birdies.
Ian Poulter’s main problem was the clicking of cameras as he returned a 70.
“I must have backed off 10 shots,” said the 31-year-old, at 31st in the world the highest-ranked player in the tournament. “That’s the worst I’ve ever known it.”
Jean Van de Velde looks certain to have to go to Sunningdale on Monday for 36 holes of Open qualifying after a disappointing 78. The Frenchman, struggling with illness the last two months, could have made it direct to Carnoustie - scene of his last-hole triple bogey in 1999 – with a top-two finish.
Walton’s 12 came as he lost four balls on the 18th, where the entire field were more than 120 over par, but South African Andrew McLardy “beat” him with a 13 as he shot 83.
“Just shocking – unreal,” said Walton, match-winning hero of the 1995 Ryder Cup in America. “I even made a lot of putts for par. It could have been a 95!”
There were also two nines and a long list of sevens at the 18th and tournament director David Probyn was puzzled.
“I’ve never known anything like it there – and it’s not as if the wind has been in the players’ faces. It’s been helping,” he said.
Walton, now 45 and no longer a European Tour card holder, added: “I think my caddie’s gone to hang himself.
“I broke all records there – I’ve never lost that many balls and my previous highest was an 11 at The Belfry. That’s one tough course out there.”