Only five of the 18 players to sign for an under-par round on Thursday at the Fiji International presented by Fiji Airways did so while combating the afternoon’s wild winds.
And nobody went lower than Kiwi Ben Campbell.
The 26-year-old was up against the worst of the day’s weather at Natadola Bay Championship Golf Course, his opening 5-under 67 earning him a slice of the first round lead alongside Australians Nick Cullen, Jarryd Felton and Andrew Dodt.
Campbell’s seven birdies have the New Zealander in prime position to surge ahead tomorrow morning, on a course he feels comfortable navigating.
It’s good knowing the course really well,” Campbell said after signing his card.
“I came from Thailand last week, so I didn’t play any practice rounds. I came out here on Tuesday, hit a few balls, hit a few putts and then just played the Pro‑Am.
“It’s my caddie’s first time around here, but I kind of explained it and just told him how it was going to play.”
Since winning his maiden pro title at February’s NZ PGA Championship, Campbell has made the weekend in all of his next eight events scattered across Asia.
Campbell noted the wind was wreaking the most havoc on the putting surfaces, a makeable chance for the outright lead going begging on his last hole of the day.
“It was actually quite tough because reading the greens, you’ve got to take the wind into account as well,” said Campbell.
“I was looking at the putt and it looked like it was probably a ball outside left, so I had it left edge and then it went left.
“It’s just one of those things – you’re going to get that the whole week.”
Cullen, Felton and Dodt all took advantage of the morning’s relatively friendly – but by no means easy – conditions, each carding opening 67s to set an impressive early pace.
Posting two eagles against just two bogeys between them, the Australians set themselves up for a good week in the tri-sanctioned event that could greatly aid all three in their quests to cement themselves in Asia and Europe.
“I’ll take that. That was not easy,” Dodt told the media after signing his card.
“I’ve always said I’m a good wind player. I mean, you’ve still got to do it. The last six months haven’t been that great… so today was a step in the right direction.
“I started leaking a few shots in the last three holes, but holed some good putts for par. Especially around here, it’s easy to drop shots, so bogey-free was a bonus.”
South Australian Cullen also avoided adding any big numbers to his scorecard and may have even surprised himself with his opening 67 after a dicey morning.
“It wasn’t the best warmup, I didn’t feel that great on the range,” said Cullen.
“Sometimes you end up having good days after that, so it worked out well.”
Nowadays, the 2014 Australian Masters champion spends the majority of his time teeing it up on the European Tour and secondary Challenge Tour – a balance that Cullen feels is helping him get the best out of himself on the course.
“I’m just playing the main tour events I get into in Europe. Sort of travelling from the U.S. and Australia,” said Cullen,
“It’s hard going over for smaller events with smaller purses. So trying to spend more time with my wife and my dog and seeing my coach and working on my game and trying to be a better golfer rather than just playing lots of tournaments.”
For rising West Australian star Felton, adjusting to the wind – and capitalising on it at the right times – is the key to posting a good number around Natadola Bay.
“If there’s no wind, anything under-par is probably normal,” said Felton, “But anything under-par today is a really good score. I’m really happy.”
“It’s mainly a cross-wind here and as soon as you get down breeze, you’ve just got to take your chances and try to knock it out there.”
On the back of a consistent year in China and Europe, Queenslander Maverick Antcliff made a late dash to finish at three-under after an opening 69 – a number he was joined at by Tour veteran Stephen Leaney later in the day.
Matt Griffin also sits at 3-under on the standings halfway through the day after a bogey-free round of his own, one stroke clear of a pack of players at 2-under headlined by fellow Victorian Lucas Herbert and China’s Ashun Wu.
Tournament drawcard Ernie Els ground out an even-par 72 in his first competition round at Natadola Bay – to sit in a share of 19th on the standings – after teeing off the 10th alongside the big-hitting Herbert.
The four-time major champ recorded back-to-back birdies prior to making the turn in a rollercoaster round that included four birdies and four bogeys.
Els’s fourth gained stroke came on his last hole, the uphill par-5 9th, to avoid shooting over-par.