Asian Tour rookie Rahil Gangjee of India emerged the surprise pacesetter at the halfway stage of the US $300,000 Volkswagen Masters China on Friday as he relished leading the likes of Nick Faldo, Zhang Lian-wei and Phillip Price.
The 25-year-old Gangjee produced a superb putting display en route to a second round six-under-par 66 and a two-day total of 135 at Pine Valley Golf Club to lead by one stroke over Australian Adam Groom, who returned a 69.
Filipino Gerald Rosales, with the day's best of 65, Korean maestro Kang Wook-soon, a two-time Asian number one, and Aussie duo Kim Felton and Richard Moir are a further stroke back on 137 in the inaugural Volkswagen-sponsored event.
Chinese stalwart Zhang carded a 70 but he rued a missed opportunity to narrow the gap as playing conditions were ideal for scoring. The self-taught Zhang, who played in the US Masters earlier this month, is tied seventh on 138 with amongst others, Price, who carded a 70; Myanmar veteran Kyi Hla Han, who produced a 68; and Singapore's Mardan Mamat.
Six-time Major champion Faldo carded a 70 and will head into the weekend six strokes behind the unheralded leader.
Gangjee jumped to the top of the leaderboard in style with two birdies in his last three holes. It left him beaming from ear to ear and he vowed not to be overawed at the weekend with the big guns chasing.
"I putted really nicely, that was the difference," said Gangjee, playing in only his fourth event on the Asian Tour this year. "I holed many 10 to 12 footers for birdies which is always good. I hit some good irons close at the start to get three straight birdies.
"I've not put any expectations for this week as I have played really badly on the Indian circuit over the last three months following a grip change. I'm just out here having fun. Although I'm leading, I'm not going to be bothered with the big-name players behind me and I'm just going to let it happen. I don't think I'll be nervous or anything like that," added the Indian, who had eight birdies on the card.
Rosales said that fatherhood has provided him with a better perspective in life. With a five-month-old son at home, he realises that runs like four straight missed cuts prior to the Volkswagen Masters China will not do him any good.
"I think I'm more mature now," said the 27-year-old. "I've got to look after the wife and my son. It's a good feeling to be a father. It's changed my life and I'm now responsible for them. It has to show in my golf."
The slightly built Filipino has been tinkering with his golf swing and reckons that was the cause of his mini slump. "I missed the cut by one shot twice this season. It's demoralising when you miss cuts. I've been working on my swing for the past two months and hopefully, I'll enjoy the fruits of labour this week," he said.
Rosales hit his irons close to the pins for birdies, with the longest putt from 10 feet. On the par three 12th, he chipped in. Rosales, whose sister Jennifer plies her trade on the LPGA Tour in the United States, was tipped for stardom after a strong amateur career which included wins in the regional games and a silver medal in the Asian Games in 1998.
Despite winning the Philippine Open in 2000 which was not part of the Asian circuit then, he has not made a strong impression. "I feel like I've come up very short in my pro career. I know my capability is a lot better than this and I feel I should be up there. I must just get my game going like today," he said.
Like Rosales, Felton was also tipped for big things after winning the individual title in the 1998 Eisenhower Trophy. He has three runner-up finishes but is hoping to land a major win at the Volkswagen Masters China.
The Aussie, who qualified for the British Open from the qualifying round in Malaysia last month, enjoyed eight birdies on the card against three dropped shots. "I've been hitting a fair amount of greens and hitting some good putts this week. I set some goals earlier this year which one of them was to qualify for a Major and I've done that for the British Open. Next would be to try and win a title in Asia. The last two months have been the best in my career playing wise," said Felton.
Zhang enters the weekend three off the lead and is confident of reeling in the leader. "On this course, you can shoot some low numbers. It was disappointing to card a two-under round as conditions were ideal. I had some good shots, and some bad shots for two bogeys. I wasn't happy to bogey the par five 16. I had 116 yards to the flag and dumped the approach into the bunker," said the Chinese number one.
Welshman Price, who beat reigning Masters champion Phil Mickelson in the Ryder Cup singles two years ago, will be a major threat. "I had a lot of chances today but I didn't make too many birdies. I was very frustrated as I didn't make many putts. The greens were softer and it was an easy day. I'll need to shoot a lot lower tomorrow. You can shoot a low round on this course. I'm playing well, I just need to get on a roll," said Price before heading to the practice green.
The halfway cut was set at 146 with 76 players moving into the weekend. Former Masters winner Ian Woosnam and India's Jeev Milkha Singh were amongst those who squeezed through.
Leading second round scores
135 - Rahil Gangjee (IND) 69-66
136 - Adam Groom (AUS) 67-69
137 - Kim Felton (AUS) 70-67, Richard Moir (AUS) 67-70, Gerald Rosales (PHI) 72-65, Kang Wook-Soon (KOR) 70-67
138 - Keith Horne (RSA) 68-70, Unho Park (AUS) 71-67, Kyi Hla Han (MYN) 70-68, Phillip Price (WAL) 68-70, Zhang Lian-wei (CHN) 68-70, Mardan Mamat (SIN) 70-68
139 - Jason Knutzon (USA) 69-70, David Hearn (CAN) 70-69, Alistair Presnell (AUS) 71-68, Ross Bain (SCO) 66-73
140 - Chung Joon (KOR) 72-68, Amandeep Johl (IND) 71-69, Chris Williams (RSA) 69-71, Gary Rusnak (USA) 69-71, Mo Joong-kyung (KOR) 70-70, Chawalit Plaphol (THA) 69-71, Lai Hung-lin (TPE) 71-69, P. Gunasegaran (MAS) 69-71, Greg Hanrahan (USA) 70-70, Simon Yates (SCO) 68-72
141 - Edward Michaels (USA) 72-69, Sushi Ishigaki (JPN) 70-71, Scott Barr (AUS) 73-68, Lin Wen-tang (TPE) 71-70, Nick Faldo (ENG) 71-70, Lam Chih Bing (SIN) 75-66, Des Terblanche (RSA) 71-70, Jamnian Chitprasong (THA) 71-70, Olle Nordberg (SWE) 70-71
142 - Lin Chien-bing (TPE) 73-69, Gaurav Ghei (IND) 73-69, Boonchu Ruangkit (THA) 71-71, Rick Gibson (CAN) 69-73, Anthony Kang (USA) 70-72, Marcus Both (AUS) 69-73, Lee Sung-man (KOR) 71-71, Eddie Lee (NZL) 71-71, Koji Katoh (JPN) 73-69.