George Coetzee negotiated the strong wind relatively well on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

ST ANDREWS, Scotland – Four South Africans are not far off the lead at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

Ireland’s Paul Dunne, fresh from his maiden European Tour victory in last week’s British Masters, shares the lead with Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts at an icy, windswept St Andrews.

Both shot five-under-par 67s on Thursday – Dunne at St Andrews and the Belgian at Kingsbarns.

But a once portly but now slim-line George Coetzee is in the hunt with a 69, and Branden Grace, Dylan Frittelli and Oliver Bekker are all on 70.

Coetzee wasn’t having a smooth sailing outward nine at St Andrews. His golf ball wasn’t listening to him, and he was hitting left and right of the target.

On the tee at the fourth hole, he tossed his ball to a South African he knew, Max Redman, who lives for part of the year at St Andrews. “This ball doesn’t know where the bloody fairway is, so you take it,” said Coetzee. 

But, in spite of the wayward shots – he only made one green in regulation in the first seven holes and hit into three nasty pot bunkers – he was scrambling extraordinarily well and had made seven straight pars followed by another one at the par-three eighth.

Then at the short par-4 eighth, known as the Boer War hole because there are three bunkers there named after South African Boer War contemporaries (Kruger, Mrs Kruger and Cronjé), he drove into a trap and ended up bogeying the hole.

“At that point, I was very disappointed with myself. Yes, the wind was making conditions brutal but I should have been scoring a bit better,” said Coetzee.

Well, that’s when it all changed for the Pretoria Country Club professional. The par-3 11th is so difficult it is known as “the shortest par-5 in Britain”.

But Coetzee hit a four-iron to the back of the sloping green, and then saw his ball roll 30-feet back down the slope towards the hole, leaving himself an eight-footer for birdie, which he rolled in for a two.

Now playing the back nine downwind, he then birdied 14, 15 and 16 and parred the rest of the holes, and – in spite of missing a four-footer for a birdie at the last – was pleased to sign for a three-under 69.

“St Andrews on a calm day gives you scoring opportunities,” said Coetzee, who equalled the course record here with a 62 in this tournament in 2012.

“But today with the wind it was really tough, so to make 69 was really pleasing after my dodgy start,” added the golfer who has hit top form recently, which he attributes to losing nearly 15kg in weight thanks to eating healthily and exercising.

Playing just two groups behind him, Grace carded 70, which he too expressed satisfaction with. “It was a grind out there and very tough not to make mistakes,” said the player who won the 2012 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, shooting a splendid 12-under-par 60 in the first round at Kingsbarns.

“And the pins were in some tough spots, so you couldn’t hit your approaches close and the only way to make birdie was to sink 15 or 20-footers.”

Grace, partnered by tournament host Johann Rupert, was in the same group as Rory McIlroy and his father Gerry.

An appropriate headline for the first nine would have been “McIlroy on fire”, but it would have been referring not to Rory but sweet-swinging Gerry, who turned 58 on Thursday, because he blitzed the loop in two-under 34, while his famous son could only do a 37 on his way to a 73 for the round.

Ernie Els double-bogeyed the first after hitting his approach into the Swilken Burn and lost another battle at the Boer War hole ninth with another six – like Coetzee, he had bunker trouble – to be out in five-over 41.

And he was four-over when he came to the short par-4 18th where, from the Valley of Sin just short of the green, he holed an 80-foot putt for an eagle two and a round of 74.

Frittelli, a first-time winner on the European Tour this year, compiled his 70 at St Andrews, while Bekker got his at Carnoustie where Dunne, Coetzee and Grace head on Friday.

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