Shane Lowry was treated to a ball-striking masterclass by playing partner Sergio Garcia but was still upbeat despite opening with a one-over 72 to share 39th with Pádraig Harrington in the Andalucia Valderrama Masters hosted by the Sergio Garcia Foundation.
The Clara man is looking for a good finish in Spain as he's 65th in the Race to Dubai and €45,543 outside the top 60 who will qualify for next month's season-ending DP World Tour Championship with only the Turkish Airlines Open and the Nedbank Golf Challenge remaining for him.
"It's the first time in a few years I've had to worry about trying to make the Race to Dubai [finale]," Lowry told Meridian Media's Denis Kirwan on a day when West Waterford's Gary Hurley shot 80 to lie tie 123rd.
"But listen, I am going to play the best I can the next few weeks and see what happens."
Four bogeys outweighed three birdies on a soft and testing Valderamma, and he could only look on in admiration as Masters champion Garcia birdied all four par-threes and made seven birdies in a five-under-par 66 to share the first round lead with Dutchman Joost Luiten, one clear of Pablo Larrazábal and Englishman Robert Rock.
"I played okay, but I struggled [off the tee]," Lowry explained. "I was starting my driver a little too far left, and around here you need to be very accurate off the tee.
"I played okay but playing with Sergio, what a day of golf he put on today. It was very impressive, and you can only stand back an admire that.
"People at home who have never played here don't realise how tough this golf course is. To make five under look easy out there was very good. But listen, one over is not that bad.
"I think if you are hanging around par coming into Sunday, you will do alright in this tournament."
Lowry, who has slipped from 43rd to 88th in the world this year, paid the price for several missed fairways and indifferent putting.
"I missed three putts in a row from five feet, and if I hole those it's a completely different day," he said. "I am not too displeased. It is always nice to shoot a better score, but I will do a bit of practice this afternoon, get out there tomorrow and see what I can do."
As for Garcia's impressive 66, Lowry said: "I've always said he's one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive ball-striker in the world. He makes it look easy. Hopefully, I will have a good day tomorrow, make a few birdies and make a run at them.
"I like it here. If you hit good tee shots, you leave yourself short irons into greens. The greens this week are very soft after a lot of rain, and they are playing a lot bigger than they would normally if there were firm.
"There are a lot of holes where you can mess up, but if you do play well, you can shoot a good score."
Lowry has rented a house in Florida for six months and is set to move there temporarily with his family for the first half of 2018 to ease his travel schedule as he bids to play on both sides of the pond.
"It will be nice for a few months to live in a nice hot place," he said. "If I don't like it, I won't stay. But if I do, I might."
Harrington also made four bogeys and three birdies in a 72 and knows that while anything around par is a good score, he needs to get to five or six under to win.
"Obviously it was very blustery in the afternoon and this is a tough course," said Harrington, who is 119th in the Race to Dubai after an injury-hit season and €247,711 outside the top 60.
"I was probably a little cautious at times and I am disappointed. All the bogeys could have been avoided. I actually hit some good shots on some of the holes that I bogeyed but you only have to be a fraction out in a gusting wind.
"But the birdies were nice and I hole a few putts so overall, it felt like it should have been a level par round — not a 66 anyway — so one-over is not the end of the world."
He added: "It's a short course but you can never really open up — you are always wary. So while level par seems like the plan, I am sure by the end of the week it will be a five or six under total."
Hurley has had a disappointing season on the Challenge Tour and it was not a happy debut for him at Valeramma as he made one birdie against four bogeys and three double bogeys in a nine-over 80.
Tournament host Garcia, 37, is making his first appearance in his native land since claiming his maiden Major Championship title at the Masters Tournament in April.
His five-under-par 66, which is his best ever start on a Real Club Valderrama course that has already given him one victory and three runner-up finishes, delighted the home crowd.
Larrazábal backed up Garcia's home charge as he signed for a four under 67 to share second place with Rock, while Andrew Johnston – who won on this course last year – was two shots further back in a share of sixth.
World Number Five Jon Rahm, meanwhile, got off to a disappointing start in his first professional appearance on home soil as he struggled to a three-over-par 74.
“It was nice. Unfortunately, it was very wet after the rain yesterday and this morning but the course is still holding well. Towards the end of the round the ball wasn't even picking up mud on a lot of the spots on the fairway. It's the kind of golf course that only needs a little bit of sun and a little bit of wind and it dries up quickly. It was gettable because it was soft but you still had to hit good shots and I was able to do that for the most part of the day. I'm very happy with my round.
“The game was on pretty much all day. I hit my irons very well, I didn't drive the ball well on the eighth hole but I was pretty much spot on there and I made some nice putts here and there. The greens were rolling quite fast, more than anything the back nine was even faster than the front. Overall I think it was very solid.
“It was nice to see so many people coming out even early in the morning and after all this rain, with all the kids.”
“It was early when I teed off and I thought the back nine was playing tough, playing long and the ball wasn’t going as far. The 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th are pretty much into the wind so you’ve got to be patient if you’re playing that nine first.
“Finally on my back nine, the front nine, I started to hit some really good iron shots and I hit some really close for easy birdies.
“It’s soft out there, a bit wider on the fairways because of that, but it plays a bit longer because you don’t get any run on the ball. You’ve got to stay in position on this course and play to certain areas and this year you might be playing different clubs than usual but it’s still the same spots you’re aiming for and I did that well today.
“I think my irons on my back nine were really good. I hit about four shots to within three foot for easy birdies and that makes this game a lot easier.”
“I wanted to stop when I was six under, it's going to be hard to keep it at six under with this closing stretch to play and I'm fully aware of how difficult 13, 14, 15 and 16 are.
“I hit a terrible iron shot into the green on the 14th, it was on the green but I knew the putt I'd left myself was almost a guaranteed three-putt. I bailed out on the second shot and it cost me, you've got to be a little bit braver than that.
“It's always a tricky course because every shot demands your attention and you have to hit proper shots for them to finish where you want them to but you get a little bit extra when it's soft because the ball doesn't run out quite as far on the greens and the putts are a little bit easier. The greens are still small so it still means a good iron shot but you can be sure that it's going to land and stop which is nice - and I don't think I've ever played it like that. You're normally a bit scared of what the ball is going to do when it lands on the green so I felt like you really need to make the most of that today.”
“Believe it or not it’s been a tough one today. It started very badly, hitting the ball very poorly. On the first hole I had to lay up with my second shot and I made a good bogey. Then I hit a driver into the woods by about 60 or 70 metres. Then I made a great par straight after that and started hitting it a little bit better.
“My first birdie came on the ninth and from then on I played great golf. Today was both sides of my golf.
“I know this golf course and I know everyone is going to make mistakes and everyone is going to make bogeys but if you stay patient and hang in there, don’t make too many mistakes and keep it going, you’re going to get a lot of birdie chances if you play well.
“I’ve been playing well the last few months even though I’ve only played two weekends all summer. But I’ve been believing in what I’m doing.”
“I’ve played well on both nines. I holed a few long putts early on in my round and at the 17th for birdie as well, and I didn’t hole many on my back nine but I played really solid, kept the ball in play, hit it into some decent spots and didn’t get into too much trouble so I was really happy.
“You’ve got to control your spin out there. There were a couple of times, like at the 17th where I had about 110 yards and I was hitting a wedge, really taking the spin off it because you’re so worried about hitting anything hard and it spinning too much and back into the hazards from the greens.
“It was a great group with Sergio and Shane, such good guys, and it’s great playing with Sergio. He’s such a good player and when you play with him I think it can help your game too so I really enjoyed playing with him.”
Andalucia Valderrama Masters hosted by the Sergio Garcia Foundation, Real Club Valderrama (Par 71)
Prize fund: €2,000,000
66 S Garcia (Esp), J Luiten (Ned),
67 R Rock (Eng), P Larrazábal (Esp),
68 P Peterson (USA),
69 R Finch (Eng), O Wilson (Eng), P Hanson (Swe), E Molinari (Ita), R Gouveia (Por), A Johnston (Eng), B Evans (Eng), J Morrison (Eng), S Jamieson (Sco), R Gonzalez (Arg),
70 A Hansen (Den), M Manassero (Ita), D Willett (Eng), A Rai (Eng), J Scrivener (Aus), M Kaymer (Ger), L Jensen (Den), A Plant (Eng), R Bland (Eng), D Brooks (Eng), F Aguilar (Chi),
71 P Waring (Eng), G Fdez-Castaño (Esp), A Romero (Arg), J Walters (RSA), M Wallace (Eng), A Otaegui (Esp), D Law (Sco), R Dinwiddie (Eng), A Sullivan (Eng), S Webster (Eng), R Jacquelin (Fra), F Fritsch (Ger),
72 A Cañizares (Esp), Shane Lowry (Irl), A Chesters (Eng), S Khan (Eng), O Fisher (Eng), Pádraig Harrington (Irl), M Armitage (Eng), C Hanson (Eng), A Wu (Chn), S Manley (Wal), T Detry (Bel), J Lima (Por), L Slattery (Eng), S Kjeldsen (Den),
73 L Canter (Eng), N Kimsey (Eng), J Fahrbring (Swe), C Pigem (Esp), M Korhonen (Fin), J Campillo (Esp), N Elvira (Esp), J Suri (USA), S Crocker (USA), A Connelly (Can), J Donaldson (Wal), B Dredge (Wal), W Ormsby (Aus), M Siem (Ger), S Soderberg (Swe), M Foster (Eng), A Karlsson (Swe),
74 D Perrier (Fra), A Quiros (Esp), N Bertasio (Ita), R Wattel (Fra), S Dyson (Eng), A Maestroni (Ita), A Knappe (Ger), J Parry (Eng), C Lee (Sco), E De La Riva (Esp), M Nixon (Eng), J Rahm (Esp),
75 G Boyd (Eng), N Fasth (Swe), R Green (Aus), M Jonzon (Swe), J Rutherford (Eng), S Del Val (Esp), B Ritthammer (Ger), C Syme (Sco), S Gros (Fra), D Stewart (Sco), Z Lombard (RSA), P Widegren (Swe), P Angles (Esp), J Lagergren (Swe), C Paisley (Eng), G Bourdy (Fra),
76 N Johansson (Swe), M Kieffer (Ger), G Stal (Fra), S Tiley (Eng), M Ilonen (Fin), R Karlsson (Swe), J Stalter (Fra), R Langasque (Fra), R Echenique (Arg), D Im (USA),
77 D Howell (Eng), G King (Eng), T Lewis (Eng), S Henry ( Sco), S Gallacher (Sco), R Paratore (Ita), J Edfors (Swe), J Olazábal (Esp),
78 S Walker (Eng), P Maddy (Eng), A Björk (Swe), A Velasco (Esp),
79 G Havret (Fra), M Carlsson (Swe), J Quesne (Fra),
80 Gary Hurley (Irl),
81 J Garcia Pinto (Esp), J Carlsson (Swe), M Pastor (Esp).