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An Survives Tough Conditions to Lead Australian Open

South Korean Byeong Hun An shares a laugh with his caddie during the opening round at The Lakes Golf Club. (Photo: Henry Peters)
If golf was a rugby game, today’s opening round of the Emirates Australian Open at the Lakes Golf Club in Sydney could well be described as a game of two halves.

The morning field did not, admittedly, enjoy an easy time on a golf course exposed to the blustery conditions but around 11.30am the wind strengthened and the rain swept in from the south and, to say the least, things got miserable.

One man who appeared as if the conditions would not have been an issue either way was 27 year old Korean Byeong Hun (Ben) An whose round of 65 in the morning saw him in the clubhouse at 5 under and one ahead of West Australian Matt Jager as the afternoon field took to the course.

An has now been a member of the PGA Tour for two years after time on the European Tour and elsewhere and has developed into Korea’s leading world ranked player. His worldwide wins include a victory at the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, so he was amongst the more favoured players even before the event got underway.

The highlight of An's opening round was an eagle at his 17th hole of the day after a four-iron approach at the par-5 8th hole.

“I hit a good drive and a 4‑iron in, and then yeah, 20, 25 feet, yeah, about right,” said An. “Then slightly uphill putt right to left and just perfect pace, perfect line, went down the middle.”

“This will be great, because I've been close this year,” said An referring to the possibility of a win given the fact that the year had already been good despite not lifting a trophy.  

“I've been playing a lot better than last year and had some close calls and I didn't get the win. But a win here would be amazing, I think. I have played pretty well, I missed out the last FedExCup event, but I finished 42nd, so it's a lot better than last year.”

An was born and raised in Korea until the age of 14 before moving to the US where he would eventually attend the University of California in Berkeley.

Being Korean-born and still a citizen of that country he is required to undertake two years of compulsory military service in that country unless he can win a medal at the Olympic Games in Japan in 2020.

The prospect of exemption from a stint in the Korean military is obviously appealing to An and he said as much after his round.

“Yeah, definitely a piece of my mind. I've got Olympics coming up in two years, so hopefully I get to play in that. And the medal, that will get me exempt in the military service, so that's definitely in my mind.”

Jager is a former Australian and New Zealand Amateur Champion but his record in the professional ranks falls well below the success he achieved before turning professional nearly eight years ago.

Matt Jager tees off the 10th hole at The Lakes earlier today.

Like most players at this level he has struggled to get a place to play in recent years after earlier playing in Canada but this could well be the sort of boost to move things forward for the tall, elegant player.

An and Jager were very much the best of the morning field, the pair separating themselves from a large group at 3 under and a total of 13 other players to have broken par before the winds strengthened and the rain set in.

Jager had the benefit of a good friend and an experienced player on his bag and he spoke of that after his round

“Mac (former leading amateur Ryan McCarthy) and I have been good mates for a long time, since junior days.

“I'd played a couple of Aussie Opens here in the past and not gone particularly well, but Ryan's finished in the top 20 here as an amateur in both the Australian Opens that he played, so he's confident in the golf course. That feeds through to me.”

Things were significantly more difficult in the cooler, windier and damper afternoon conditions as the field battled squally showers for much of their rounds and in the final analysis the scoring was perhaps better than the conditions suggested would be the case.

When play was completed a total of 27 players were under par with 12 having done so in the demands of the afternoon.

The player to produce the best afternoon score was Victorian amateur David Micheluzzi, who made the turn in 1 under 34 but then in some of the worst of the conditions recorded four birdies and a bogey on his way in for a homeward nine of 34, a round of 68 and a share of 2nd place.

David Micheluzzi shortly after completing his opening round.

Micheluzzi, a member at the Metropolitan Golf Club in Melbourne and a member of the Australian Eisenhower Trophy side, was runner-up at the recent WA Open in a year which has elevated his standing in the amateur game to 14th in the world amateur rankings.

22 year old Micheluzzi's growing profile in amateur golf has given him opportunities to play several significant events this year and the experience he has gained is paying dividends.

"I think Fiji was probably a good starting point with the cameras and all that, and then Asian Amateur was the same kind of deal as well, said the Victorian. "Got used to it. "I had a good first round there as well. This now, it kind of feels normal as much as it isn't, but yeah, I kind of feel like I belong now, which is good.

His up and down to save par from just short of the green at the par-three 18th spoke volumes for the composure he was showing despite the magnitude of the event and augurs well for the prospects of Micheluzzi, not only this week but when he eventually turns pro.

One of the pre-tournament favourites, Matt Kuchar, finished strongly for a round of 68 to be tied for 10th and he looms even larger as the most likely winner come Sunday.

"They were very tough conditions," said last week's winner in Mexico Kuchar. "That first hole was playing so hard and I was thinking we're in for a long day. It was tough. Thankfully, I escaped with a bogey on the first hole and played some pretty good golf from then on in.

"As long as everybody has to deal with the same elements, you're okay with it. It blew hard this morning, it blew hard this afternoon.  I think it was tough all day, so you figure it's a fair test then. 

"If we get calm elements in the morning, you kind of hope the guys kind of deal with the same in the afternoon. It sure makes golf easier and more pleasant with some calm elements, but part of the game is dealing with the elements and we do a pretty good job with that."

Among the other notable scores, Australian Cameron Smith opened with a 74, Keegan Bradley 72, while Brandt Snedeker, Brendan Steele and Anirban Lahiri all opened with 73.

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