Damien McGrane will be hoping to build on his spectacular star to the Trophee Hassan II and end his four-year victory drought in sunny Morocco.
Wielding his putter like a magic wand, the 40-year old Kells man fired an eagle and eight birdies in a seven under 65 to take a two shot lead over Spaniard Alejandro Cañizares at Golf du Palais Royal.
The Meath man struggled to keep his card last year, finishing 115th in the Race to Dubai. And after slipping from second at halfway to 20th in last week’s Open de Andalucia, he knows there’s still a long way to go before he can hope to challenge for his second European Tour win.
“I played beautifully out there today and I am delighted with it,” said McGrane, who began with an eagle at the 10th and then birdied four of his last five holes.
“I got off to a fast start and managed to keep it going so it was a very good day. The conditions were fairly tough with the warm wind and it was very testing out there, but I managed to putt very well out there and hence the reason I have the good score.
“This golf course is beautiful and if you play well it can give you plenty of opportunities. I am playing well at the moment – I played well last week and could have finished a lot better but this is a new week a new opportunity and I am very thankful to have got off to such a good start.”
After opening with that eagle three, McGrane bogeyed the par three 12th and 14th but birdied the 13th, 15th, 17th and 18th to turn in four under 32.
He dropped another shot on the fourth but then hit his apporach to four feet to birdie the par-five fifth, holed a six footer for birdie at the sixth and followed a seven foot par save at the seventh with two closing birdies.
His three at the ninth was a huge bonus after he got to place the ball on the edge of the green in order to take relief after his ball finished in a sprinkler head.
“I had a club length’s relief and had to drop the ball on the edge of the green but it was going to run off down the hill,” McGrane explained. “So I had to be sure how far it had to roll away before I had to either re-drop it or play it.”
As it turned out, McGrane eventually got to place the ball on the edge of the green after three attempts to drop saw the ball run more than two club lengths away and he duly took advantage by converting a 20 footer for birdie.
“I made a great start today with the eagle and that really got the confidence going early and I managed to continue that and finish strongly so all in all it is a nice feeling,” McGrane added.
“Both Richie Ramsay and myself played really well out there today and it became a bit of a putting competition between the two of us!
“This is a beautiful golf course and there is something very special about playing on the King’s course. As European Tour players we are very privileged to play great courses most of the time and we always get well looked after wherever we go but this week is very special indeed.”
Scot Ramsay shot a four under 68 to share third place with Peter Lawrie a shot further back in tied 10th despite finishing with a double bogey six at the 18th for his 69.
The Dubliner missed the cut in Spain last week but took advantage of perfect early conditions as he started in the first group of the day.
Waterville’s Mark Murphy got to tee it up as part of his prize for winning Big Break Ireland last year.
And the Waterville man took advantage in the afternoon, finishing with birdies at two of his last three holes to open with a level par 72 that left him tied for 35th
Shane Lowry got off to a poor start - bogey-par-bogey - but after getting back to level with birdies at the fifth and seventh, he boeyed the par-five 17th to finish the day tied 53rd after a 73.
Michael Hoey (74), Gareth Maybin (77) and Paul McGinley (79) completed the Irish scoring on a day when Matteo Manassero and Robert Rock had differing fortunes in their efforts to qualify for the Masters.
Needing a win to qualify for Augusta, the 18 year old Italian kept his dream alive with a three under 69.
But Rock’s hopes suffered a killer blow when he racked up a septuple bogey 11 at the fourth and signed for a five over 77.
“I had a good start and hit some good shots on the first three holes and could have birdied all three. But I managed one so was going well and then hit the tee shot left down the fourth and knew it wasn’t good down there. I hit a provisional left as well, hit another one onto the fairway but we managed to find the second one.
“It was sitting up in the ice plants. They are notoriously difficult to get out of but it was sitting up so I thought I could move it ten yards back to the fairway. I took a big swipe and didn’t move it. So I had the same stance and this time moved it two feet.
“Then I got it out into the fairway and hit a four iron up to the green, chipped it onto ten feet and as is always the case when you are racking up a high number I finished it all off with a three putt. That was it. Went from one under to six over and the tournament was over in the space of half an hour.
“It still feels that way. I mean, to drop seven shots in one hole is pretty hard to recover from. I had 17 other good holes and the game is in good shape so I might be able to make the cut tomorrow and move up to a decent finish but I don’t think that I can get what out of this week which is obviously the trip to the Masters. Matteo needs to win this week and he is on course and playing nicely.
“It is a great course though. Very tricky without being too long. There are a couple of the par fives that may be a little bit too easy but apart from that it is a truly great test.
“The Masters was hopefully going to be the result of a good week and I was really looking forward to coming here and playing this course but that is probably not going to be now and I have to find some way of finding the interest to play the rest of the week because I am out of touch now.
“It’s a shame really because it all happened on one hole. If I had shot a regular 77 if you like then I would deserve to miss my chance but this was all down to one shot. A bot harsh but that’s golf I suppose. All a bit weird at times.”