Lawrence leads Joburg Open on turbulent day, event cut to 54 holes

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JOHANNESBURG, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Rain and lightning on Friday played havoc with the second round of the Joburg Open already hit by withdrawals and retirements as European golfers rushed to head home with travel bans imminent after the discovery of a coronavirus variant in South Africa.

Later on Friday, organisers said they had reduced the event to 54 holes to help non-South African players, caddies and other tournament staff return to their home countries.

South African Thriston Lawrence had a four-shot lead after a two round total of 130, but a thunderstorm halted play for 2-1/2 hours at lunchtime, meaning half the field were yet to complete the round and must return on Saturday before the third round.

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But if the weather proved the final straw, the overnight decision of Britain to impose a ban on flights from South Africa -- a decision followed by several European Union countries -- had already hit the tournament, and the rest of the South African swing of the European Tour, hard.

Some 14 golfers withdrew before the start of their second round and a further seven retired as play got underway, looking to catch flights out of the country to avoid having to quarantine on their return to Europe.

"I had three holes to finish in my first round and when I came in I turned my phone on and I had messages from everyone asking me if I was going to go to the airport or stay and play. That's when I started to look into it," Irish golfer Paul Dunne told RTE radio.

"A few people are on the course without a real idea of what's going on," he added. "But some people are finding it hard. I've heard people can't get a flight until Sunday evening."

But others are staying like Scotsman David Drysdale and wife Vicky, who is his caddie.

"There wasn't a seat to be had by the time we found out what had happened. A lot of the guys were panicking but we thought, 'what's the point?'," he told the Scotsman newspaper.

A statement said the Joburg Open would go ahead but the rest of the South African leg would be adversely affected.

Next week's South African Open at Sun City has been downgraded to a Sunshine Tour event, with a reduced prize fund of $500,000 instead of $1.5 million.

"The Alfred Dunhill Championship, which was scheduled to be played at Leopard Creek Country Club from Dec. 9-12 has, after lengthy consultations, unfortunately been cancelled due to the adverse effect the travel restrictions will have on the field," the European Tour added.

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Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Shrivathsa Sridhar and Ken Ferris

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