Smail back in the game

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KIWI David Smail is getting his his confidence back — and he’s pretty sure there’s much more to come over the next three days of the New Zealand Golf Open.

Smail, who wrote off his own chances ahead of the tournament despite being the highest-ranked player in the field, bounced back to form with two birdies in his first two holes of yesterday’s opening round at The Hills course near Queenstown yesterday.

It set him on his course for a tie for the lead at seven under at the end of the day.

Smail’s 65 has him tied with rookie American Bobby Gates — playing in his first tournament after advancing through Qualifying School to play the Nationwide Tour — and Aussie Andrew Dodt, fresh off the Asian Tour.

Smail was in the fourth group to tee off this morning and led for much of the day.

But Gates, a Florida-raised 24-year-old who had his girlfriend as his caddy, finished with three birdies at the other end of the day to grab a share of the lead.

And Dodt, playing in the second-last pairing of the day, came with a punishing burst to force a three-way tie after posting four birdies in the last four holes. His second shot on the 18th hit the flag and finished 10 feet short — he nailed the birdie putt.

Smail, Gates and Dodt go into tomorrow’s second round one shot in front of DJ Brigman of the United States and Aussie Andrew Bonhomme on six under.

“My confidence is suddenly back after those two birdies,” said Smail, who started favourite with the TAB despite having little faith in his own game.

“It’s still not 100 per cent when I hit it today but I putted superbly. Even the putts I missed were right on the line I wanted to hit them.

“It’s almost a year since I have putted that well.”

Smail’s win in the 2001 New Zealand Open was his first as victory as a professional. “I want to win it again.”

And the signs are good.

“This could be my best round at a New Zealand Open for a long time. I’m usually a slow starter.so it’s nice to get out of the gates a bit quicker. This is definitely a tournament I’d like to win again.”

Gates, all 6ft 6in of him, roomed in his freshman at Texas A&M University with Martin Pillar, who finished runner-up to Alex Prugh in this event a year ago.

“I feel I left a lot of opportunities out there, not taking birdies with some easy shots,” Gates said after his round. “Playing driver into wedge is right up my alley.”

Brigman, tied for fourth, played in Smail’s group, which started off the 10th tee. He bogeyed the 11th, but that was his only lapse as he turned in one-under 35 before reeling off five birdies in seven holes on the front nine.