Centurion golfer Bennie van der Merwe fashioned a five-under-par 67 at Services Golf Club in Pretoria to edge into the first round lead of the IGT Challenge Tour’s Services Challenge on Monday.

He got off to a birdie-birdie start and pushed into the mix with an eagle at the par five ninth and another birdie at 12. A lone bogey at 15 was the only blemish on his card, but Van der Merwe wiped out the deficit with a final gain at 16.

Last week, Van der Merwe and partner Kyle Lucas tied for third in the Zwartkop Better Ball. This week, he has the lead.

“Not too shabby for an old dog,” laughed Van der Merwe, whose tall, lanky frame has become a familiar sight on the country’s premier golf development circuit this season.

“At 36, these youngsters wonder what I’m doing on the IGT Challenge Tour, but golf doesn’t have an age limit and I definitely believe my best years are still to come.”

Van der Merwe turned pro in 2007 and campaigned on the Sunshine Tour until 2015, but he had to hang up his clubs after he contracted a virus and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

“I was out of the game for the whole 2016 season, but my daughter’s birth in August really brought me out of early retirement,” he said. “Life changes when you become a parent. I know I haven’t reached my full potential yet and my family supported me to take one more shot.”

Van der Merwe said getting through First Stage of the Sunshine Tour’s Q-School in March gave him a good idea where his game was at after the long break and what he needed to do to get back on Tour.

“That’s why I compete on the IGT Challenge Tour and why so many Sunshine Tour pros come and play here, too,” he said.

“It’s a highly competitive circuit where you can test your game under pressure and identify what needs work. Right now, I’m probably playing as good as I was playing 10 years ago. I’m striking it well and I’m able to keep my game going under pressure. You’re never too old to play this game and I’ve got some new tricks, so these kids better watch out.”

The tournament leader finished one stroke clear of amateur Leon Visser, Tokkie van der Berg and IGT Challenge Tour Money List leader Ruan Conradie and he is two shots ahead of Gary Player Class of 2017 member and former Sunshine Tour champion, Teboho Sefatsa.

“The birdie-birdie start got me into red numbers early,” he said.

“I had a few chances down the front nine, but the putts didn’t drop. At the ninth I hit my tee shot left and found my ball in a sandy lie in the rough. The fairways are very hard, so I took three-wood and just tried to get it out to use the fairway. It came out absolutely perfectly, pitched and rolled to six feet.

“I made a sweet birdie at 12 to get into the mix, but I thinned a nine-iron at 15. The ball plugged in the greenside bunker and I hit a great trap shot to 12 feet but missed the par putt. Got it back at 16, though, when I hit lob-wedge a foot and a half.

“Just a pity I couldn’t take advantage of the last par five. I was just 10 foot short of the green at 18, but my chip came out too hot and I had to scramble to save par. Ruan birdied the last three holes to get within one. He will come for me tomorrow. Should be a lot of fun.”

FIRST-ROUND SCORES
All competitors RSA unless otherwise specified and amateurs indicated as AMA

67 - Bennie van der Merwe

68 - Ruan Conradie, Leon Visser AMA, Tokkie van den Berg

69 - Teboho Sefatsa

70 - Richard Joubert AMA, Roberto Lupini

71 - Pedro August, Estiaan Conradie, Etienne Janse van Rensburg AMA, Shaun van Tonder, Duan Nagel AMA, Bryce Myburgh

72 - Pieter Moolman, Clinton Grobler, Louis Botha

73 - Ru-Juan Lessingh AMA, Kyle McClatchie AMA, Ruan Korb, Jay Dean Fourie, Jacques Cloete AMA

74 - Mae Cornforth, Ruan Groenewald AMA, Owen Grobler, Juan Langeveld, Conway Kunneke

75 - Dennis Williams AMA, Estiaan de Jager AMA, Jade Buitendag, Stephan de Beer, JP Cooper AMA

76 - Thabi Ngcobo, Jaco van der Merwe AMA, Phillip Kruse AMA, Cameron Nesmith AMA, Christiaan Pretorius

77 - Divan de Villiers AMA, Hanro Kilian AMA, Paul de Beer

78 - Marc de Jager AMA (ENG), Cameron Gurr AMA, Romano Saincic, Terry Smith, Divan Marais, Aaron Lugtenburg

79 - Joubert van Eeden, Marcus Smal AMA

80 - Juan de Bruin AMA, Tudor Bismark (ZIM), Donald Makhafola AMA, Cameron Gunning

81 - Gary Jutzen AMA, Alfred Koopman AMA

83 - Christopher De Beer AMA

86 - Dylan Morton AMA