Geelong’s Ben Eccles has raced to the Australian Master of the Amateurs lead with his “best round ever” at Royal Melbourne.
Eccles, a Torquay Sands member, made a bogey on the first hole of the West Course, but went blemish-free after that to secure a three-shot edge over a world-class amateur field with a six-under-par 66 opening round.
Australian youngsters showed their familiarity with the Sandbelt masterpiece to leave some of the world’s top-ranked players in their wake, with world No.5 amateur Lucas Herbert and fellow Golf Australia national squad members Cory Crawford and Zach Murray sharing second at 69.
They were joined late by world No.23 Englishman Nick Marsh who overcame a sand-riddled double-bogey on the par-four eighth hole with three back-nine birdies to right the ship.
A handful of players are at 70, including Brisbane’s Taylor James McDonald and Chinese prodigy Guan Tinlang.
Of the other top-ranked players in the field, American Will Zalatoris (No.4) and Brian Campbell (No.10) each fired 71, while Canadian Corey Conners finished a luckless 72.
Of the other highly ranked Australians, Adelaide’s Antonio Murdaca had an up-and-down 72, Perth’s Jarryd Felton fired a 73 to be alongside young Victorian Brett Coletta, and Melbourne’s Ryan Ruffels admitted to some post-Christmas rust after his 74.
But the day belonged to Eccles, whose 66 bettered his previous best 70 at Royal Melbourne by “a long way”.
“It was great to get the dividends of … a lot of hard work,” the 20-year-old VIS attendee said.
“It’s really nice to know that my best stands up against some … of the best players in the world – it’s really satisfying, actually.
“I had a few days off (over Christmas), so to come out and play well fresh was great. I’ve always liked the course, but I’ve never played it like that before.”
Crawford, a Tasmanian now a member at Queensland’s Sanctuary Cove, said an off-season break of toil, particularly with a psychologist over his putting stroke, had “all been worthwhile”.
“I’ve been working on a few things over summer and put them into play today for the first time and I really enjoyed it,” said Crawford, who closed with four birdies in the final seven holes, including a rare three up the tough last.
“I had a slow start, but I turned it around by holing a couple of 3m putts on eight and 11 and that got things going which was really good.”
Herbert, typically charismatic after his round, was uncharacteristically animated on course when a couple of chances slipped by midway through his round.
But befitting the enormous golf education from which he graduated in several professional tournaments late last year, he knuckled down and rolled in three consecutive birdies from the par-three 13th after three-putting for par on the 12th.
“It’s a tough golf course – you’ve got to work your way around it as smart as you can,” Herbert said.
“I hit it in the right spots and kept myself in it and then I was lucky enough to hit a couple of good putts coming in.”
Herbert, low amateur at the recent Emirates Australian Open, said there was a benefit of local knowledge over the elite visitors, but said they’d adapt quickly and nothing should be taken for granted.
“You can feel like the experience under your belt should work for you, but it always surprises me how well the (international) guys play on these different courses … after a couple of practice rounds. They are so good.”
The second round begins at 7am on Wednesday — an hour earlier than first scheduled with high temperatures expected in Victoria.