Shane Lowry was pleased to overcome tricky afternoon conditions and open with a three under 68 in the British Masters at The Grove.
The world No 40 birdied the last from 12 feet to match playing partner Graeme McDowell and end the day tied for 12th, just two strokes behind co-leaders Mikko Ilonen, Marc Warren, Tommy Fleetwood at Richard Sterne.
“It was tricky,” said Lowry, who had his coach Neil Manchip on the bag rather than regular bag man Dermot Byrne as he followed a bogey at the par-three seventh with birdies at the eighth, 10th, 15th and 18th.
"I didn't feel like we played any holes downwind. I felt like every hole was a crosswind and it was hard to figure out whether it was helping or hurting and it was flipping a lot. It was quite strong, as well. No, I’m really happy with that.
"I holed a few nice putts from the eighth hole onwards, so yeah, happy with that start. Looking forward to getting out on some nice greens in the morning and hopefully the wind is not as strong and try to shoot a nice score and put myself up there.”
McDowell, who is re-energised and looking to get back to contending for titles, also had four birdies in a 67.
“It’s great playing with your friends, playing with Graeme, and have my coach on the bag for just one week,” Lowry said.
"We've done it in the past three or four times and we just decided this week was a good week to do it. I really enjoyed myself out there and looking forward to the next three days.
"Dermot is a great caddie obviously and he's been with me for seven years. Listen, he’s done it for me before and we just said we wanted to do it this year and looked at my schedule, and this is the best week to do it.”
Paul McGinley shot a one under par 70 to end the day tied for 29th as Michael Hoey, who needs a huge fortnight to keep his card, struggled to a four over 75.
Lee Westwood, meanwhile, was one of six Englishmen just a shot off the pace on four under par, joined by compatriots Richard Bland, David Horsey, Andrew Johnston, James Morrison and Lee Slattery, as well as Swede Alex Noren – twice a winner on the European Tour already this year.
Tyrrell Hatton, last week’s winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, continued his strong form as he carded a three under par 68. He was joined in a share of 12th place by 2016 Ryder Cup star Chris Wood, Northern Irish Major winner Graeme McDowell and Ireland’s Shane Lowry among others.
“I very rarely hit it out of position and putted lovely. It was just one of those days where every putt I hit felt lovely and, overall, five-under is a great score. The wind was up this afternoon and then it got cold later on in the day. When we first went out, it was clear that it was going to be quite a tough day, so you have to make the most of your chances. It’s only one round down but hopefully we'll keep going.
“I actually played the British Masters when I was 17 as an amateur. That was the last time it was on at The Belfry and last year, having it back on again, it was a superb event. We're lucky to play in it. It's always a pleasure to play in front of home crowds as well.”
“I was delighted with a 66. The wind was getting up and changing as we were going around, so it was really pleasing. I wasn't really under too much stress at any time during the round, so it was a really enjoyable round of golf.
“The eagle on the second was probably the best drive I hit all day as well. That was a really nice number, about 235, a little bit into the wind off the left, and I just made a nice free swing with the five wood. It was nice to walk up and see it about six, eight inches, something I could tap-in for an eagle.”
“It was a perfect start, I played some of my best golf on the front nine. I sort of lost my rhythm a little bit there around halfway, but I came back strong and made two birdies at 16 and 18 to continue the trend from the weekend at the Dunhill.
“I've still got work to do to get to Dubai. I'm pretty safe for Turkey, but I’m not quite sure about Nedbank. As of now, I will be in for Nedbank and obviously the goal is to finish strong and be as high as possible in the Order of Merit.”
“I played probably the best tee-to-green I have done all year really. I had so many chances and it was just good to feel that control over the ball. It was pretty tough out there, there were a lot of cross winds. I had a lot of opportunities from 15 feet, but I didn’t really putt great. I’m happy with 66 – if you had said to me before I would have taken it.
“I’ve only played this course once before in a pro-am, but it’s a lovely golf course. You have to drive it really well and I did that pretty good today.”
“The driving's not been great recently, but I drove it really well today. I didn't miss a fairway, hit a lot of good iron shots as well and gave myself a lot of chances for birdies.
“This golf course can give you a few chances early on but there's a couple of tough holes as well. The second, the third and the fourth, with the par three over water. I controlled the ball well but I had a chance because I hit fairways. My iron shots were pretty adjacent most of the day.”
66 R Sterne (RSA), M Ilonen (Fin), M Warren (Sco), T Fleetwood (Eng),
67 R Bland (Eng), L Slattery (Eng), A Noren (Swe), J Morrison (Eng), D Horsey (Eng), L Westwood (Eng), A Johnston (Eng),
68 Shane Lowry (Irl), C Wood (Eng), S Jamieson (Sco), Graeme McDowell (Nir), T Hatton (Eng), S Kjeldsen (Den), B Wiesberger (Aut), A Wall (Eng), G Bourdy (Fra),
69 M Southgate (Eng), J Singh (Ind), R Rock (Eng), J Luiten (Ned), P Edberg (Swe) , N Colsaerts (Bel) , M Ford (Eng) , M Siem (Ger)
70 T Immelman (RSA), M Baldwin (Eng), C Lee (Sco), Paul McGinley (Irl), O Fisher (Eng), C Paisley (Eng), T Jaidee (Tha), M Fitzpatrick (Eng), G Wright (Wal), A Levy (Fra), R Karlsson (Swe), P Larrazábal (Esp), S Gallacher (Sco), J Quesne (Fra), D Brooks (Eng), P Hanson (Swe), K Aphibarnrat (Tha), M Kieffer (Ger), P Waring (Eng), H Porteous (RSA), M Carlsson (Swe),
71 T Aiken (RSA), G Stal (Fra), B Dredge (Wal), C Shinkwin (Eng), F Zanotti (Par), J Campillo (Esp), M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), J Hugo (RSA), J Parry (Eng), A Quiros (Esp), P Peterson (USA), J Walters (RSA), E De La Riva (Esp), M Korhonen (Fin), B Rumford (Aus), R Ramsay (Sco),
72 L Bjerregaard (Den), F Aguilar (Chi), T Fisher Jnr (RSA), R Dinwiddie (Eng), S Webster (Eng), G Havret (Fra), R Kakko (Fin), M Cort (Eng), A Sullivan (Eng), D Lipsky (USA), S Khan (Eng), A Wu (Chn), R Fisher (Eng), E Pepperell (Eng), T Lewis (Eng), F Fritsch (Ger),
73 B Evans (Eng), J Carlsson (Swe), G Coetzee (RSA), D Fichardt (RSA), M Madsen (Den), M Manassero (Ita), R Karlberg (Swe), R Green (Aus), P Lawrie (Sco), A Cañizares (Esp), V Dubuisson (Fra), R Jacquelin (Fra), D Howell (Eng), J Olazábal (Esp), R Paratore (Ita), T Olesen (Den), J Van Zyl (RSA),
74 A Dodt (Aus), M Jonzon (Swe), Y Yang (Kor), N Holman (Aus), G Storm (Eng), S Gregory (am) (Eng),
75 O Wilson (Eng), Michael Hoey (Nir), P Meesawat (Tha), J Lagergren (Swe),
76 B Hebert (Fra),
77 N Bertasio (Ita), K Broberg (Swe), J Edfors (Swe), L Donald (Eng),
78 S Lee (Kor), R Wattel (Fra),
79 J Jeong (Kor), E España (Fra),
82 S Dyson (Eng),
** J Donaldson (Wal), S Benson (Eng)