Irish tested at demanding PGA Catalunya

Paul McGinley watches his tee shot at the short eighth. Picture: Thos Caffrey /

Shane Lowry, Paul McGinley and Simon Thornton remained in touch with the leaders as they battled to level par 72s in the first round of the Open de España at a testing PGA Catalunya Resort.

The Catalan venue tests the Q-School hopefuls every autumn but even in warm conditions, a capricious afternoon breeze, cloying rough and narrow fairways made it a tough test as just 30 players in the 155-strong field broke par at the Girona resort.

Shane Lowry brushes a putt at the hole. Picture: Thos Caffrey /

None of them were Irish and Thornton could feel the most aggrieved of the lot as he dropped three shots in his last three holes to fall from the lead to joint 31st, but still just four shots behind England's Eddie Pepperell.

As Pepperell carded an opening four under par 68 to finish a shot ahead of a group of eight players, including pre-tournament favourite Sergio Garcia and fellow Spaniards Miguel Angel Jiménez and Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Thornton bogeyed the seventh and then made a double bogey six at the tough ninth to see his good work undone at the death

Lowry, desperate to find some form after a poor start to the season, opened with two birdies at a track where course management and accuracy are more important than ever.

A triple bogey seven at the 10th took all the wind out of his sails at a time when he is struggling to gain momentum and he will be encouraged that he had just 26 putts and managed to birdie the par-five 15th to get back to level par.

McGinley might have been jet-lagged after watching Martin Kaymer win The Players Championship at Sawgrass, but while he turned in one over, he played the tough last three holes under par with a birdie-bogey-birdie finish to turn in a respectable card in the tough afternoon conditions.

Waterville's David Higgins has mixed memories of the Q-School venue having won and lost his card there.

This was another disappointing day, however, as he eagled the par-five 15th (his sixth) and birdied the 16th to grab a share of the lead before playing his next six holes in five over.

A birdie at the short eighth gave him a 73 for a share of 49th alongside the struggling Gareth Maybin, who bogeyed the eighth and ninth to finish the day with a bad taste in his mouth.

A double bogey five at the 16th led to Michael Hoey carding a two over 74 while Kells' Damien McGrane also dropped three late shots to leave himself in danger of missing a fourth successive cut.

"Disappointing round today in Spain on a tough course," McGrane wrote to his social media followers. "Three bogeys in the first five holes made for a difficult recovery.

"One over on the turn, got it back to level by the 13th hole (4th) but a double bogey on the 6th and another bogey on the 8th, resulted in a three-over par total.  Looking for a much better round on Friday afternoon to survive the cut."

Simon Thornton was caught out by the tough ninth. Picture: Thos Caffrey /

Kevin Phelan, who earned his card in such spectacular style at PGA Catalunya last year, continues to struggle for momentum on tour.

The rookie  Mount Juliet  tourining professiona hit just six fairways as he made six bogeys and just two birdies in a 76 to end the day tied 113th four over.

Ranked 124th in the Race to Dubai, Phelan is waiting patiently for his week.

He can look to Pepperell, who finished 76th on The Race to Dubai in his rookie campaign last year, but so far this season has made just three halfway cuts in ten events, with a best finish of joint 45th in Abu Dhabi in January.

"Seemingly it's come out of nowhere looking at my results but it's very similar to last year," said the 23 year old, whose best finish in 2013 was a tie for sixth in the flagship BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

"This time last year I started working with Mike (Walker, who also coaches Lee Westwood) and he made a big difference instantly. Then I went and did a couple of my own things, which was a bit silly and cost me a bit of time this year but I feel like I am back on the straight and narrow.

"I back my ability and I know when I am playing well I can shoot good scores. I'm just not at the stage in my career yet when I am playing well enough consistently enough, but hopefully I will get there and today is a good sign.

"It was really tricky when it was flat calm and when I got on the tenth tee all of a sudden the wind came up out of nowhere and was blowing for the whole of the back nine."

Garcia had enjoyed the calmer morning conditions as he set about justifying his billing as pre-tournament favourite with an opening 69.

Fresh from his third place in the Players Championship at Sawgrass on Sunday, Garcia shrugged off a bad night’s sleep as he looks to win his national open for the second time, 12 years after his previous success.

The World No 7 carded three birdies, an eagle and two bogeys.

"I'm happy with my round," Garcia said. "I didn't have the greatest night last night and only slept for about four hours with the jet lag.

"I didn't feel extremely well with my swing but I managed to put it in play and give myself some good chances at birdies. The course is tough and the fairways are some of the tightest we have played all year.

"With the grass they have in this rough as soon as you miss the fairway it's a guessing game."

Dutchman Robert-Jan Derksen partly had a hole-in-one on the fifth to thank for his 69 - he holed out with a five iron from 211 yards - while Scotland's Richie Ramsay would have hoped for even better than his 69 after birdies on his first three holes.