South Africa’s Jbe Kruger grabbed the outright lead at the halfway stage of the Hong Kong Open yesterday, paying tribute afterwards to former South African president Nelson Mandela, who he called a “real-life hero.”
Kruger added to an opening round 67 with a four-under-par 66, thanks to a scintillating putting display on the back nine that leaves him one shot clear of Stuart Manley going into the weekend.
Organizers had billed the tournament as a clash between Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez, chasing a record-equaling fourth title, and 15-year-old Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang.
However, Kruger had different ideas at the co-sanctioned European Tour and Asian Tour event, sinking seven birdies yesterday, while Jimenez only partially moved up the leaderboard and Guan failed to make the cut.
“Our country has lost a real-life hero,” Kruger, who wore a black ribbon in memory of the anti-apartheid hero, said of Mandela after his round. “He was one of the best presidents I’ve ever seen. He fought for the black South Africans, but the white South Africans love him just as much.”
Kruger certainly seemed inspired. After a shaky front nine, which included one birdie and three bogeys, the South African stepped up several gears on the inward half.
He holed putts for birdies on 11, 12, 13 and 14, before a par on 15 preceded two further birdies on the 16th and 17th.
The putter stayed hot and Kruger holed a short one for par on the last to come back in only 30 shots.
Kruger, who is ranked 230th in the world, said it was “fun” to be leading an event “for a change.”
Earlier, defending champion Jimenez made a charge at the US$1.3 million event at the Hong Kong Golf Club.
The Spaniard, who was the early favorite to triumph on Fanling’s lush fairways courtesy of being the highest-ranked player at 48, shot a three-under-par 67 to go with Thursday’s par 70.
However, it should have been so much better for the winner of 19 European Tour titles after he birdied six of his first 11 holes without dropping a shot.
Three bogeys saw him fall back and he sits four shots behind Kruger going into the third round.
Guan failed to replicate his success at this year’s US Masters when he made it to the final two rounds, struggling to a 75 which left him at plus six — five shots shy of the projected cut.
Manley, from Wales, is in second place on his own at six-under, while three players are tied on five-under-par.