HONG KONG, CHINA—New Zealand’s Nick Voke, fifth on the PGA TOUR Series-China Order of Merit, eagled the par-5 18th to card a first-round 5-under 65 and take a one-stroke lead at the season-ending RMB 2 million Clearwater Bay Open.
Italy’s Cristiano Terragni carded an early 66 in strong winds at The Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club and was later tied by Sweden’s Oskar Arvidsson, while Thailand’s Gunn Charoenkul – who had a hole-in-one and led before a double-bogey on 18 – posted a 67 to share fourth with Australia’s Deyen Lawson and Americans Benjamin Lein and Matthew Negri.
As players chase a top-five finish on the Order of Merit to secure a place on next year’s Web.com Tour or a top-10 place to enter the Final Stage of qualifying, money-list leader Charlie Saxon shot 74, second-placed Callum Tarren carded 71, third-placed Yuwa Kosaihira posted a 68 and fourth-placed Todd Baek shot 69.
Hong Kong’s Motin Yeung, seventh on the Order of Merit, shot 71 with a record RMB 360,000 winner’s check at stake, while amateur Terrence Ng was the top local performer with a 70 to tie for 21st.
Voke, 23, burst onto the Tour in sensational fashion when he tied for fourth at the Suzhou Open early last month, then won the Qinhuangdao Championship and Macau Championship, before fading to a tie for 16th at last week’s Zhuhai Championship.
Now World No. 327 and New Zealand’s fourth-ranked player, Voke began his bid for a third win in four PGA TOUR Series-China events at Clearwater Bay with birdies at Nos. 5, 9 and 11, went bogey-birdie at 14 and 15, before a stunning eagled capped a round in which the rookie pro missed only one fairway and two greens in regulation.
“I’m pretty stoked to be honest as it was very challenging out there. The course was playing very tricky and the wind just makes it all the more difficult. I played some really smart golf and I was executing some good shots, plus a nice little eagle on the last,” said Voke, the only player to eagle the 550-yard dog-leg left.
“It’s a very difficult driving hole and off the tee there’s a bunker about 330 yards to carry, plays downhill 25 [yards], so 305 yards with this wind. I thought it might be touch and go, so I tried to hit a little fade from left to right, but I hit it dead straight and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, please don’t go in’, but flew it by miles. I had 163 yards in, hit a 7-iron to 12 foot and holed it, so a good way to end.”
Voke’s previous appearance at Clearwater Bay was at the 2015 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, where he tied for 19th after a poor finish in an event reduced to 54 holes. “I was in contention, but just blew apart and finished seven-nine-four, so it was nice to finish three-four-three today.”
Terragni, whose best finish this season was a tie for 26th at the Suzhou Open, was a surprise early leader after a bogey-free round, as the 28-year-old seeks to boost his Order of Merit ranking of 94.
“I was feeling good and I took some risks, but I made a bogey-free round, so I’m really happy,” said Terragni, who was 41st on the 2016 money list. “Another bogey-free round tomorrow would be great. I’m not sure how many birdies I’ll make, but bogey-free is always great.”
Charoenkul, who played with Voke and China’s Yi Cao (71), is playing only his fifth event on the Tour this year, having focused on the Japan Golf Tour, but ties for third and ninth have helped him to 36th on the Order of Merit, meaning a win could propel him into the top-10.
The Thai, whose girlfriend Koi is caddying for him, holed out with a pitching-wedge at the 142-yard par-3 14th to move into a share of the lead with Terragni then led outright after a birdie at 17, but fell back with a double-bogey on 18.
“I think it was my first hole-in-one in a tournament and third in my life. I saw Nick [Voke] hitting over the pin on the right and he stuffed it there to about 10 feet, and I hit mine and it was looking pretty good, but I wasn’t expecting a hole-in-one. I thought it was going to stop right in front, then it disappeared and everyone was like, ‘Woo’,” said Charoenkul, who was seventh on the 2016 money list.
“I kept my momentum going and then I kind of messed up on 18. I didn’t practice 18 during the last two days, and I thought I hit it just right of the bunker, but the wind kind of took it into the bushes. Other than that, it was a good round. This is probably my best round so far at Clearwater Bay, so I’m really happy with how my game’s going.”
The 26-year-old Thai was also full of praise for both his playing partner and his girlfriend.
“I watched Nick and he was just striping it, so I was trying to copy how he was playing. I think I learned a lot from him even though I turned pro seven years ago and this is his first year,” said Charoenkul, who has two wins on this Tour, in 2014 and 2016.
“Koi has been helping me a lot for the past four or five events, and every time she’s on the bag, I’ve been playing well, so I’m really happy when she caddies for me. She’s my lucky charm.”
This year’s event features a strong family presence, with Charoenkul and Malaysia’s Arie Irawan among several players whose wives or girlfriends are caddying for them, while Americans Charlie Saxon and Joseph Winslow, defending champion James Marchesani of Australia and China’s Zihao Chen are among players supported by at least one of their parents.
The top-five on the PGA TOUR Series-China Order of Merit will automatically earn status on next year’s Web.com Tour, the top-10 will be eligible for the Final Stage of the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament from December 6-9 and players 11-25 will be exempt to the Second Qualifying Stage.
The PGA TOUR established PGA TOUR Series-China in 2014 as its third international developmental tour, following in the footsteps of PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada. Since its inception, PGA TOUR Series-China players have received Official World Golf Ranking points for top finishes at official tournaments.