Shubhankar Sharma climbed into the lead at the Magical Kenya Open presented by Absa, the Indian crediting his aptitude in the altitude as he carded a four under 67 for a ten under halfway total and a one-stroke advantage.
The 25-year-old has two DP World Tour titles to his name and his first one in 2017 came courtesy of a three-stroke victory at the Joburg Open in Johannesburg, which – like Nairobi – is more than 1,700m above sea level.
Sharma has already shown flashes of that winning form this year, finishing tied runner-up at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January, and four birdies and an eagle moved him to the front heading into the weekend at Muthaiga Golf Club.
Japan’s Masahiro Kawamura and Ewen Ferguson of Scotland are both a shot further back on nine under after rounds of 66 and 67 respectively, while Thriston Lawrence of South Africa – winner of the season-opening Joburg Open – sits in fourth place on seven under par.
Arguably the story of the day came courtesy of 18-year-old Kenyan amateur Njoroge Kibugu, a member at the host venue Muthaiga. A spectacular closing eagle in front of the jubilant fans helped him to a five under 66 and a six under total, just four shots back as he looks to become the first home winner in the event’s 55-year history.
Shubhankar Sharma: “I’m really happy, whenever you finish with two birdies you’re always happy. It was a good round for me today, it was quite a slow start for me starting on the back nine, not much was happening for me, but that eagle on the 18th really propelled me.
“The front nine was great, missed birdie opportunities on both the par fives but came back strong on eight and nine with birdies and I’m really pleased with the score.
“It does fly a long way, personally I’ve done well whenever I play at altitude, I’m good at controlling my irons, so I did not do too much trackman work this week – I might have hit about 50 balls on the trackman this week – and I just got my numbers.
“I think the ball is flying about 15% longer than it does at sea level and it’s been pretty consistent. Obviously a few shots here and there you do get a little bit surprised but I think I’ve done a good job of getting my distances dialled in.
“I’m very comfortable out there. It’s not easy to get your numbers dialled in but like I said, I’ve done a good job. My first win came in Joburg which was also at altitude so I have good memories from playing at places where the golf course is at a height and that is definitely helping. I’m very pleased with what I’ve done over the past few days.”
Masahiro Kawamura: “I’m happy, this was a good round and a very nice finish. I missed some iron shots but my chipping and putting were very good today.
“A bogey free is great for me. It’s just Friday and I need to just keep going and hopefully I can keep playing this way at the weekend.”
Ewen Ferguson: “I’m really happy. After getting Covid a couple of weeks ago and not feeling my best out on the course, I went home and practised, did some work with my coach, did some work in the gym and went to Dubai a few days early and worked on my swing. It has felt good the last few days so I’m happy with where I’m at.
“I had it together a little bit before but just with not picking up a club for eight or nine days with having Covid, I kind of lost my feelings a little bit. But then I got a bit of work done and managed to hit my little fade again and hitting it on the fairways, making some putts here and there as well.
“I think when the tournament started I just switched on a little bit in my head and thought about things a bit more thoroughly so it’s about managing that altitude a bit better.
“I think it (the distances in altitude) is a bit of guesswork, my caddie is South African so that helps, he knows how it works a bit better than me so I’ve been relying on him a little bit more this week than usual. At least then if it’s wrong I just blame him!
“I’m confident and just happy to be in the mix, there or thereabouts, and keep hitting the long drives and the little fades in the middle of the fairway and it should be there or thereabouts going into Sunday. But there’s so much golf to be played and I’m just happy to be in the right frame of mind and playing nicely, so we’ll try and keep it going.”
Njoroge Kibugu: “I don’t even have words for it, the birdie on 17 I hit a two-iron and wedged it close to five feet. On 18, I was kind of going for a draw off the flag just to stay out of the danger. It went straight and to a foot.
“I am feeling the support everywhere, it’s amazing and I appreciate it. I’m grateful for one, and I’m ready to go and fight at the weekend. I just need to enjoy the moment and stay in the moment.”