HONG KONG - Cameron Smith marked his return to the Hong Kong Open after nearly a decade in style by shooting a first-round 7-under 63 to take the lead along with rising star Eugenio Chacarra, here on the magnificent Composite Course at the Hong Kong Golf Club, Fanling.
Korean Yubin Jang, who only turned professional last month after helping his country win the team gold at the Asian Games, and Thailand’s Gunn Charoenkul came in with 64s, while American Andy Ogletree, Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai, Taehee Lee from Korea, Chinese-Taipei’s Lee Chieh-po and Harrison Crowe, winner of the 2022 Asian Amateur Championship, from Australia returned 65s.
Smith, the 30-year-old who won twice on the LIV Golf League this year to finish second on the rankings behind American Talor Gooch, played in this event in 2014, the year after he turned professional, and tied for ninth – providing a snapshot of what was to come.
“It’s been a long time since I have been here. It’s probably been too long,” said Smith, who played just the one season on the Asian Tour.
“Hong Kong is one of my favourite cities, the golf course speaks for itself and the Asian Tour is on the up, and I love it.”
Smith boarded the birdie train today, making a total of eight birdies and just the one bogey. He opened with birdies on the first two holes, before making a late run for the lead with four in a row from 14.
“Played really solid,” he said. “Was able to put in some good work the first few days while I was here. It worked out today.
“The course is very refreshing. It’s nice not having to slug your driver on every hole, and actually having to figure some stuff out. It was tricky out there today, a little gusty. It’s a cool track. It’s one of my favourites and hopefully we get no rain.”
Spanish star Chacarra summed up just how well he is playing, saying: “I was in contention to win my last two LIV Golf events and I was in contention last week [Volvo China Open] and obviously I won St Andrews [the St Andrews Bay Championship on the Asian Tour in August].”
It was a real statement of intent from one of the game’s most exciting young golfers, as he went round bogey-free in his debut appearance in the Hong Kong Open, the penultimate leg of The International Series, with just the BNI Indonesian Masters presented by TNE remaining next week.
“Hard not to be happy with the round and seven under,” added the strapping 23-year-old, who was the halfway leader last week at the Hidden Grace Golf Club before surprisingly slipping back at the weekend, finishing fourth.
“I think I have been playing well the last couple months and a half. The game has been there, especially since last week in China. I didn’t feel well after my round on Saturday, after dinner there, and didn’t have a great final day.”
He began on 11 and did not hold back making four birdies in his first five, before adding two more on the back.
He added: “This is a course I like a lot. It fits my eye pretty well and reminds me of the course I grew up on. I am excited for the week. It’s just getting better every day.
“It’s a great golf course, it’s tricky and you need to hit the fairways. It came into my eyes the first round I played it. I love it. Hopefully I can come back a lot of years, I am excited for what’s next. Like my coach said you can lose a tournament in the first round, but you can’t win it. We have a long three days left. It’s a matter of keep getting better.”
Yang is another young hot shot making waves. He won on the Korean PGA Tour as an amateur this year, and triumphed at the Asian Games with team-mates and PGA Tour stars Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim as well as Woo Young Cho.
He shared the lead on seven at one point but dropped a shot on his second from last hole.
Ogletree will wrap up The International Series Order of Merit (OOM) by making the cut this week, barring an unexpected turn of events, and take a step closer to claiming the Asian Tour OOM, with four events remaining.
“I’m not too worried about making cuts,” said the winner of this year’s International Series events in Qatar and England.
“I’m trying to win a golf tournament and I’ve always said that good golf takes care of everything and that’s what I’m trying to do this week – just trying to focus on the short term and not what’s going on outside of this week. But it is obviously a great position to be in and I’m super thankful to have the lead on The International Series Order of Merit.”
He made nine birdies but also one double and two bogeys.
He added: “The golf course is in great shape, I think there’s a couple of spots on the fairways that are a little messed up due to the typhoons that they’ve had but they’ve done a really good job of getting it ready for play this week and I think the greens are some of the purest greens that we’ve played in a long time so you can definitely make a lot of birdies out there and I think the golf course is really good.”
Gooch carded a 68, defending champion Wade Ormsby from Australia and Hong Kong’s Taichi Kho shot a 70.
Photo credit: Asian Tour