Padraig Harrington lines up his birdie putt on the 17th at Vilamoura. Picture Eoin Clarke/www.golffile.ieIf Paul McGinley is looking for any Ryder Cup captaincy endorsements from the general membership of the European Tour, he can probably count on Simon Thornton.

Citing a bad back, the Dubliner pulled out of the Portugal Masters at the last minute, giving first reserve Thornton a chance to improve his chances of holding on to this tour card.

Ranked 156th in the Race to Dubai, Thornton failed to take advantage of McGinley’s withdrawal, carding a five over 76 that left him joint fourth last in the 130-strong field.

Instead it was Shane Lowry who flew the tricolour near the top of the leaderboard, firing six birdies and a double bogey in a four under 67 that left him joint fourth and just two shots behind stablemate Ross Fisher and Scot Stephen Gallacher.

“I played nicely,” said Lowry who birdied the third and fourth to turn in two under. “I had a few chances early doors and I was only two under after 11 holes. Then I birdied 12 and 13, which was good and then threw it back with a double on 14, hit my tee shot in the water.

“But I finished strongly with a chip in on 16 and a decent birdie on 17 and a good par on the last which is always a tough hole. Four under is a decent score and I’m up there at the top of the leaderboard. Hopefully I will stay there for the week.

“The greens are a little firmer than they normally are this early in the week but there is no rough on the golf course. Normally you have to hit the fairways here and you get rewarded. But you try to play away from the trouble and hit good irons shots because being in rough is like being on the fairway on some holes.

Laytown and Bettystown’s Bobby Browne watches former pupil Damien McGrane in action in Portugal. Picture Eoin Clarke/“There are always a lot of Irish people here. Vilamoura is a great place to come so it’s a very enjoyable week with a lot of Irish support. When I holed that putt on 17 I got quite a decent roar. Some more Irish are coming out tomorrow so I am sure we will hear them.”

Gareth Maybin and Padraig Harrington are tied for 16th after two under 69s with the Dubliner finishing strongly after a double bogey at the par-three sixth saw him turn in two over.

Playing alongside Miguel Angel Jimenez and the Dane Thorbjorn Olesen, Harrington birdied the 10th and par-five 12th before holing from just off the green for birdie at the par-three 13th.

Despite hitting just five fairways, the lack of rough played into his hands and while he drove into sand at the par-five 17th, he hit a fairway wood just short of the green and got up and down.

Darren Clarke holed an eight iron for an eagle two at the ninth, his final hole, to card a one under 70 and share 33rd place with Michael Hoey and Damien McGrane.

Peter Lawrie had to settle for a two over 73 after taking 35 putts.

Several top Irish pros were watching the action including Christy O’Connor Jnr and Laytown and Bettystown’s Bobby Browne, who has recently recovered from a series of operations for skin cancer.

The 70-year old made a remarkable comeback last month when he competed in the PGA Super 60s Tournament at De Vere Belton Woods in Lincolnshire.