21 November 2014 – Ashleigh Simon lags just three off the pace from compatriot Connie Chen, who took a one stroke lead in the first round of the inaugural €250,000 Xiamen Open in China.
Chen, with father Hong on the bag, toured the par-72 championship layout at the Orient Golf and Country Club in 68 strokes to take pole position on four under par.
The recent Tenerife Open de Espana champion reeled in birdies at the fifth, eighth and ninth holes after a bogey start and had three more gains on the back nine to eliminate a bogey at the 15th.
Chen missed the cut at Yalong Bay Golf Club last week, but local knowledge of this week’s course was a certain advantage.
“I played this course twice as an amateur in the 2007 and 2009 China Ladies Opens and knowing the greens better than most of the other girls helped me,” said Chen.
“I was hitting it great all day. I was a bit long off the tee at the eighth, so I had a short second shot in on the par five and made the chip and putt. At the ninth, I hit a brilliant tee shot, another great shot in and chipped and putted.”
Liz Young from Englang, Australian Nikki Garrett, Noora Tamminen from Finland and American Beth Allen are tied for second on three under, two strokes head of Simon.
The two-time LET champion has been campaigning on the LPGA Tour this season, but with her card for 2015 secured, Simon turned her attention to the Ladies European Tour last week and tied for eighth in the Sanya Ladies Open with fellow South African Stacy-Lee Bregman.
Simon carried her form to an opening 71 in Xiamen to finish within striking distance of Chen.
She birdied the par-four sixth and par-five ninth to turn in two under and erased a bogey at the 11th with birdie at the next hole. The triple Sunshine Ladies Tour winner dropped shots at the 14th and 15th, but rallied with a birdie at the 18th to finish in a tie for ninth on one under.
Bregman has some work to do after opening with a three over 75.
The reigning Zambia Ladies Open champion was very consistent with 15 pars, but bogeys at the first, 12th and 13th dropped her to joint 57th, right on the projected cut line.
If Simon was South Africa’s most successful amateur, Chen came a close second.
Although she relocated to Imperial Springs in China in February, her South African roots run very deep.
Chen honed her game at Waterkloof Golf Club, represented Gauteng North Golf Union at national level and South Africa on the international stage since the age of 13.
In 2010, she was named the 2010 Compleat Golfer South African Woman Golfer of the Year by Womens Golf South Africa after a watershed season during which she claimed eight provincial victories.
A member of the winning Gauteng North teams at Inter-Provincial and the 72-hole Team Championships in 2008 and 2010, Chen was the youngest member of the SA team that earned bronze in the 2010 World Amateur Team Championship in 2010. She also earned national colours for representing SA at the Jakarta Junior World Championships and British Girls Championships.
It took Chen four years to break into the winner’s circle, but one has a strong feeling that Tenerife is just the first of many to come.