By Joy Chakravarty
Portrush, July 18: Curtis Knipes, the youngest player in the field and a member of the MENA Tour, made a solid start in the 148th Open Championship with a one-over par 72 that left him just one shot behind amateur leader James Sugrue of Ireland.
The 18-year-old Knipes, who is leading the amateur standings in the Journey to Jordan at the halfway stage of the MENA Tour schedule, made three birdies and was one-under at the turn, but could not pick up any shots on the back nine as weather played truant and came back in two-over 37.
Knipes secured his spot having come through two levels of qualifying – prevailing in a play-off in the Local Qualifying at Burhill and then winning the medalist honour in the Final Qualifying at Princess.
And after his decent start at Royal Portrush, Knipes set his sight on the Silver Medal, awarded to the Leading Amateur in the Open Championship.
“It was a fairly decent round. I played pretty solid. It got pretty tough coming in, obviously we had a bit of rain. And it's quite a brutal finish around here. But reasonably happy under the pressure,” said Knipes, who had to wait for just three holes for his first birdie in a major, and then added two more on the fifth and eighth holes.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel nervous on the first tee. It was probably the most nervous I’ve been. Every shot out there you kind of think you’ve settled in, and you do, but you kind of stand over a putt and you do feel the nerves all over again.
“I’ve got my eyes on the Silver Medal. Making the cut obviously would be great. But Silver Medal is probably the one goal that I have right now.”
Knipes clearly enjoyed his experience at Royal Portrush, and also the birdie on the third hole.
“On third, I just had a putt down the hill, and gave a roll and it went in. It was about 15 feet, maybe. It was just that pin was tucked quite close to the fringe. And the crowd went pretty crazy. Louder than I thought they would be,” said Knipes.
“I holed a few good par putts out there, and the one on 11th was pretty good. I got myself into a little bit of trouble off the tee and had to lay up. Must have been about 25-30 foot for par. That was quite good. And that kept me going, after having one on the front nine.”
Knipes played with seasoned pros Oliver Wilson of England and Mikkp Korhonen of Finland, who both ended up shooting two-over par 73 each.
And Wilson, a multiple winner on the European Tour, was full of praise for Knipes.
“I thought he played very solid. He has a good swing and he rolled in some long putts. It was impressive from the young man,” said Wilson.
The other MENA Tour member in the field, England’s Matthew Baldwin who leads the Professional Order of Merit and won the opening tournament of the season, dropped five shots in just two holes – a triple on the first and a double on the last – to finish on seven-over par 78.
Among the three past champions in the field, Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre (2017 Sahara Kuwait Open) was the best-placed after a three-under par 68. England’s Callum Shinkwin (2019 Omega Dubai Desert Classic Shootout) finished on one-under par 70, while Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond (2017 Mahasamutr Open) shot a 74.
The MENA Tour by Arena is returning to the world schedule after a year of restructuring and will feature 10 tournaments in 2019. It will continue to provide Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points, thus making it a perfect pathway for ambitious young professional to the bigger tours, and for the players from the region to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The first half of the 2019 season, comprising five tournaments and the Qualifying School, was held in February and March this year. The second half of the schedule begins with the Journey To Jordan-2 at Ayla Golf Club in Aqaba, Jordan, from September 29.