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Bangkok, February 4: Thailand’s rising star Kiradech Aphibarnrat battled to a four-under-par 68 to share the first round lead with American Jason Knutzon and Brazilian newcomer Lucas Lee at the season-opening Asian Tour International on Thursday.
The 20-year-old Kiradech, a former world junior champion, rolled in five birdies at the Suwan Golf and Country Club to join Knutzon, who played despite being ill, and Lee atop the leaderboard at the US$300,000 event.
Filipino Mars Pucay shot the season’s first hole in one en route to a 69 to trail in tied fourth place with Singaporean duo Quincy Quek and Lam Chih Bing, Sweden’s Richard Karlberg, Korea’s Kim Dae-hyun, Australian Rohan Blizard, Thailand’s 14-year-old amateur Atiwit Janewattananond and Hideto Tanihara, an eight-time winner in Japan.
Entering the week, the burly Kiradech declared his intention of breaking through for a first title in Asia and a round helped greatly by his big-hitting game pushed him to the forefront.
“I’m very happy. I hit many wedges into the greens and got four birdies from close range. This is my chance to win. I’ll try to keep it up as it’s my goal to win on the Asian Tour,” said Kiradech, who finished 30th on the Order of Merit in his rookie season last year.
“I drove the ball well and my putting was really good. It’s a tough course. The pins were tucked and the greens are really firm and fast. I had to stay patient out there. It’s a very good first round,” added the Thai, who dropped a lone bogey on the 18th hole, his ninth of the day.
Knutzon rose from his sick bed to set the morning pace. The two-time Asian Tour winner has been down with fever for the past two days but he lived up to the adage ‘Beware the sick golfer’ by firing five birdies against a lone bogey.
“It’s pretty amazing when you have something else to think about,” said a weary Knutzon. “Luckily it was pretty cool this morning which helped but I was kind of gassing it in the last few holes. Anytime you shoot under par, it should make you feel a bit better.”
Lee, who is of Korean origin, made the most of his Asian Tour debut by tying for the lead late in the day, thanks to a birdie at his last hole. “I hit a lot of greens and made the putts I needed to make today. I wasn’t hitting a lot of fairways,” said the 22-year-old, who graduated from Qualifying School last month.
It was truly an exhilarating start to the new season, thanks to Pucay’s magical ace at the third hole which came on the back of an eagle as he recovered from an outward 38 to end the day just one off the pace.
“I turned in two over and hit a great five wood to three feet for eagle on the par five second hole. Then I stepped onto the next tee and made a hole in one,” said Pucay. “This ace is my gift for my wife (Leslie) as it’s our 15th wedding anniversary today.”
After 15 years on Tour, Pucay is desperate for a first title. “Hopefully this year, it’ll be time for me to win. I’m going to play more aggressively, especially with my putting. I’ll charge a bit more when I’m in position to win,” he said.
The highly-rated Quek, who earned his card from Qualifying School, was delighted to start strongly where he finished his round in style with a 20-foot birdie conversion. “My putting helped. I drained quite a few longs ones. I was hitting it alright and kept it in play. When I had opportunities, I made them which was nice,” said the 22-year-old.
Defending champion James Kamte of South Africa, whose clubs arrived on Wednesday night, was four under through 10 holes but stumbled home with five bogeys to settle for a 73.

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