Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai unleashed his full repertoire of shots today to take the lead in the US$2 million Hong Kong Open, after carding a brilliant seven-under-par 63, stacked with 10 birdies.
He leads on 12-under by one from two golfing powerhouses Australian Cam Smith and Sangmoon Bae from Korea, who returned rounds of 66 and 63 respectively, here on a warm and sunny day at the Hong Kong Golf Club, Fanling.
American Micah Laurent Shin (63), Thailand’s Sadom Kaewkanjana (64), Kiwi Ben Campbell (64) and Harrison Crowe (65) from Australia are one shot further back – in the penultimate leg of this year’s International Series.
Chinese-Taipei’s Lee Chieh-po is also tied with them following a 65, driven in a big way by a hole-in-one on the par-three eighth – which saw him rewarded with the keys to a BMW I5 eDrive40 MSE.
Phachara’s nickname is “Diamond” and he certainly put together a gem of a round today which also demonstrated a new-found maturity.
On the iconic par-four 18th facing a difficult second he decided to lay up to avoid the pond that guards the green, as opposed to taking it on in his usual trademark cavalier style. It paid off as he got up and down for the par save.
“My game is better game right now,” said the Thai golfer.
“Like on the last hole I could hit it to the green, but it was like a 1% chance to get on green and the pin was back left. If I hit it past the green on the right side, I have no chance to make a par. So, then I thought okay, lay-up, and then I hit a good third shot and made par.”
He has been knocking on the door of second victory on the Asian Tour since his maiden win at the end of 2021 in the Laguna Phuket Championship.
In September he was beaten in a sudden-death play-off at the Shinhan Donghae Open in Korea, while last month he was third in the SJM Macao Open.
He added: “My mindset on the weekend is I just play my game, because right now I hit the tee shots better than last year and better than a couple months ago. I think I have a chance because this week I feel great on the greens and with my short game right now. ”
Smith admitted he wasn’t quite at his best today despite nailing six birdies with two bogeys.
“It was a lot tougher [today],” said the 2022 Open winner, who made three birdies on the trot from the first.
“Early alarm this morning, body wasn’t quite working this morning. But you know, it was alright, it was a little bit scrappy to be honest. It was good to get out of there with three or four under there.”
His two round total is already three shots better than when he finished joint ninth here in 2014, the only other time he has played in the event.
He added: “I’d like to think that I improve every year. You know, that was a long time ago, I probably didn’t hit the ball as far, I probably didn’t do anything as good as what I’m doing at the moment. So yeah, completely different scenario and hopefully I can keep improving.”
Bae, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, registered an eagle, seven birdies and two bogeys.
Said the Korean, who is making his first appearance here since 2007: “It was a really good round. I mean I started with bogey on my first hole, it was a little disappointing but after that I tried to really focus on my game, and it came back.”
“I really like this course; this is a really tricky rough and the greens are really fast. So really, you need to hit the right spots from the second shot, so it’s more of an iron shot course and I really like it.”
His fine start to the tournament has ratified his decision to be here this week.
“I was in the field in Bermuda on the PGA Tour this week, but I made a decision to play in China, here, and maybe Indonesia next week, so I think it was a really good decision,” he said.
“And, you know, I’m trying to find my game, and so far it’s really good. I mean, the putting is good, iron shots are good so I’m really excited to play on the weekend.”
Hong Kong number one Taichi Kho looked to be heading for an early exit but birdied his last two holes to shoot a 68 and move to two under for the event, right on the cut line.
He said: “Pretty rough first few holes I would say. Didn’t quite pick the right shots at the right times. And made some poor swings so that compounded errors.
“But I am really happy I was able to stay in the present at all times. I was quite far out of the tournament, but I stayed disciplined to my game plan. I was really happy to finish mentally strong.”
Lee’s ace was the third of his career and was the result of laser-like seven-iron from 196 yards.
He said: “It’s unreal, you know, because this is my first hole-in-one since I turned pro, so it’s just unbelievable.”
American Harold Varner III signed for a brilliant best of the day 62, which was 10 shots better than his first round, to leap into a tie 21st place.
Australian Wade Ormsby, the defending champion, returned a 71 to finish one over and miss the halfway cut, a brave performance considering his father passed away two weeks ago.