When David Hggins won back his tour card last November he had no doubts he could still win on tour.
“Put me on the right course in the right conditions and I feel I can win,” he said.
Fast forward four and a half months and the links-loving Waterville man is just a shot off the lead following an immaculate opening 69 in the Open de España and feeling right at home.
The sea breezes and the links feel of a firm fast El Saler are perfect conditions for the 40-year old, who is three under par and just a stroke behind Felipe Aguilar of Chile, Denmark’s Morten Ørum Madsen and Frenchman Gary Stalon a day when just 11 players broke 70.
Former winner Peter Lawrie shot a 71 to share 23rd but it looks like an uphill battle for the rest of the Irish in action in Valencia.
While Gareth Maybin (74) is tied 74th and Damien McGrane (75) and Michael Hoey are 97th after 75s, Shane Lowry slipped to a 78 for joint 139th and amateur Reeve Whitson languishes in 153rd in the 156-man field after an 81 on his European Tour debut.
Higgins will face breezier conditions in Friday’s second round having taken full advantage of relatively calm early conditions on day one.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t relishing the prospect of a battle with the elements over the next three days, so confident is he in links-style conditions.
“I’m very happy with it,” Higgins tolf European Tour Radio. “Being out first I thought the greens would be nice and soft, but no way.
“I hit a couple of wedges in the first few holes and the ball bounced way up in the air. So I’m very happy with that because it is difficult out there.
“I grew up playing this kind of course in Waterville and on the links courses in Kerry so I am at home here. So long at the wind blows I will be fine here.
“[The parkland holes] play linksy as well with the hard fairways and firm greens. Driving is the key, which is a strong part of my game.
“You have got to hit the fairways and I am usually pretty good at that and playing the linksy style shots, I’m comfortable hitting those as well.”
Not the longest off the tee, Higgins missed just four fairways and only four greens but got up and down each time for par, taking 29 putts as he followed a run of nine opening pars with three birdies in his next seven holes.
“Distance is not the biggest thing here,” Higgins reported. “You have got to be straight. You have got to hold shots up against the wind, things like that. So it is finding the short grass so you can get up around those tough pins. So it is the key, hitting those fairways.”
The reigning Irish PGA champion, whose best finish on tour is third place in the 1996 BMW International Open in Germany, knows he will face windier conditions on Friday afternoon but he’s looking forward to that challenge.
“It’s always the same at these seaside courses. Guys in the morning have it nice and calm and when I get out it will be a little bit more windy. But that helps you on some holes as well.
“I am not saying it will be as easy as when we played it but there will be some holes a little easier.”
Ranked 189th in the Race to Dubai standings with a share of 17th in February’s Africa Open his only finish in the money in his first round starts, Higgins said: “I’ve been playing good. I know my results haven’t shown that. South Africa was in and out and I almost had a good week in the second tournament.
“I am happy with the way I am playing and patience is a big thing. I know I am pushing on a bit to be saying that, but that’s the key out here.
“I started off the year trying to push things, push things and it didn’t work so this week I came in here and said, ‘Try to relax and just play your game and see how things go then.’
“I actually feel like a rookie again because I had four years off where I just played a few events. So I feel fresh. I haven’t done all the travelling, I haven’t had the hard graft of the tour.”
Prepared to take things in his stride, he added: “I am fresh and ready for action, as they say.”
Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño continued his fine form from last week’s Masters Tournament to lead the home charge alongside Higgins following a 69.
“I think three under is a great start,” said Castaño. “I played some steady golf and got a couple of lucky breaks when I needed them and I holed some nice putts.
“This course is second to none, one of my favourites in the world. I think the Spanish Federation alongside with Reale Seguros is doing a great job in moving the Spanish Open around the best courses in the country and this stop was very much obliged. It’s good to be back on the European Tour, this is my home tour, and, of course, it’s nice to be back in Spain.
“I have to say that what I did last week is starting to sink in now. I was very disappointed at the end of the week because I really believed I had a chance to do something special because of the way I hit the ball.
“But my short game wasn’t half as good as it should have been. But now I am realizing that I played a pretty good tournament and I am also learning from the experience for the next time I go to Augusta National.”
Castaño is joined by seven other players on three under on a severely congested leaderboard that features no less than 40 players within four shots of each other.
Just outside that top 40 lies pre-tournament favourite and World Number 13, Sergio Garcia, who carded a level par 72 at El Saler.
“It was a pretty flat round to be honest,” said Garcia, who led last week’s Masters after round one and eventually finished the week in a tie for eighth place.
“We had very little wind but the greens are firm and it was not so easy to get it close. And, obviously, you are in trouble if you don’t hit fairways. I had a decent start and should have been three or four under but I made a lousy double on the fourth and after that I found myself fighting to save pars instead of making birdies.”
Mourne amateur Whitson, who earned his place in the field thanks to his Spanish Amateur Open win at La Manga earlier this year, parred his first five holes before a triple bogey eight on the par-five 15th and a bogey at the next saw him turn in 40.
He then came home in 41 with six bogeys and just one birdie in homeward 41 but still tried to look on the bright side.
He tweeted: “I love golf!!! lol tough out there but not that tough! Always tomorrow! Thanks for the messages of support I will try my best tomorrow!”
Lowry was one of the biggest Irish disappointments of the day as he took 35 putts in tough afternoon conditions, carding three birdies, seven bogeys and a double bogey six at the 16th.
Normally a magician around the greens, he missed seven greens but failed to get up and down even once.
First round scores:
68 M Madsen (Den); F Aguilar (Chi); G Stal (Fra);
69 D Higgins (Irl); D Brooks (Eng); M Southgate (Eng); J Sjöholm (Swe); G Fdez-Castaño (Esp); R Derksen (Ned); J Lagergren (Swe); C Lee (Sco);
70 M Carlsson (Swe); P Price (Wal); D Howell (Eng); M Warren (Sco); E Pepperell (Eng); S Wakefield (Eng); J Lara (Esp); E Molinari (Ita); A Snobeck (Fra); R Finch (Eng); P Uihlein (USA);
71 J Walters (RSA); P Oriol (Esp); C Aguilar (Esp); M Tullo (Chi); N Elvira (Esp); L Jensen (Den); P Hedblom (Swe); R Santos (Por); A Cañizares (Esp); P Lawrie (Irl); D Horsey (Eng); A Velasco (Esp); E Kofstad (Nor); M Korhonen (Fin); R Coles (Eng); A Levy (Fra); J Colomo (Esp); P Waring (Eng);
72 E De La Riva (Esp); J Quesne (Fra); R Rock (Eng); J Campillo (Esp); R Karlberg (Swe); I Garrido (Esp); R Cabrera-Bello (Esp); A Otaegui (Esp); A Sullivan (Eng); A Hansen (Den); P Casey (Eng); S Garcia (Esp); F Andersson Hed (Swe); A Domingo (Esp); J Morrison (Eng); G Bourdy (Fra); K Ferrie (Eng); T Fleetwood (Eng); A Marshall (Eng);
73 S Garcia Rodriguez (Esp); M Delpodio (Ita); R Green (Aus); J Gonnet (Fra); T Van Der Walt (RSA); A Hartø (Den); M Baldwin (Eng); S Little (Eng); M Zions (Aus); O Fisher (Eng); R Jacquelin (Fra); C Macaulay (Sco); R Davies (Wal); J Garcia Pinto (Esp); R Wattel (Fra); D Drysdale (Sco);
74 S Benson (Eng); S Webster (Eng); J Edfors (Swe); E Grillo (Arg); M Nixon (Eng); G Maybin (Nir); J Hansen (Den); C Paisley (Eng); S Hansen (Den); M Lundberg (Swe); P Whiteford (Sco); T Lewis (Eng); S Arnold (Aus); R Gonzalez (Arg); R Bland (Eng); J Luiten (Ned); S Dyson (Eng); K Broberg (Swe); V Dubuisson (Fra); J Garcia (Esp); J Sandelin (Swe);
75 M Brier (Aut); R McEvoy (Eng); S Henry (Sco); O Floren (Swe); B Åkesson (Swe); M Kieffer (Ger); P Erofejeff (Fin); M Hoey (Nir); J Busby (Eng); F Molinari (Ita); P Martin Benavides (Esp); A Tadini (Ita); L Slattery (Eng); D McGrane (Irl); J Sarasti (am) (Esp);
76 C Cévaër (Fra); N Fasth (Swe); A Forsyth (Sco); C Doak (Sco); J Olazábal (Esp); J Kruger (RSA); A Quiros (Esp); G Piris Mateu (Esp); M Lafeber (Ned); G Havret (Fra); J Parry (Eng); M Lampert (Ger); M Jiménez (Esp); A Ferrer (am) (Esp);
77 C Lloyd (Eng); P Larrazábal (Esp); C Del Moral (Esp); A Dodt (Aus); E Goya (Arg); B Etchart (Esp); C Pigem (Esp); F Zanotti (Par); M Campbell (Nzl); G Cambis (Fra); S Kjeldsen (Den); B Dredge (Wal); J Simon De Miguel (am) (Esp);
78 M Manassero (Ita); L Gagli (Ita); J Legarrea (Esp); S Lowry (Irl);
79 O Wilson (Eng); G Storm (Eng); A Kaleka (Fra); J Bondia (am) (Esp);
80 M Jonzon (Swe); G Lockerbie (Eng); M Foster (Eng); T Levet (Fra); J Elson (Eng); M Wiegele (Aut);
81 R Whitson (am) (Nir);
82 D Gaunt (Aus); B Virto (am) (Esp);
83 G Boyd (Eng);