Scotsman Raymond Russell set the pace in the first round of the Challenge Provincia di Varese with a superb seven under par 63.
In scorching heat at Golf Club Varese in northern Italy, Russell produced a flawless round, which included three birdies in the last three holes, to lead by one from compatriot Andrew McArthur, Switzerland’s Raphael De Sousa, South African Justin Walters, Italian Marco Crespi and Swede Niklas Lemke.
“That score was probably the worst it could have been today,” said Russell, who was limited to just two events on The European Tour last year because of a debilitating virus.
“I three-putted a par five, missed from four feet for birdie at the eighth and three feet for birdie at the ninth. But it was really solid. I just kept it in play and my iron play was very good. The longest putt I holed was eight to ten feet.
“It’s not a bomber’s course, which is perfect for me. You just have to keep it on the fairway and keep plodding along.
“My game has been showing signs of coming good. I played nicely last week for 27 holes and then not so good for the rest. But there’s a bit of momentum going.”
Despite having a medical exemption for The European Tour, Russell added: “I’m going to stick to the Challenge Tour for the rest of the season and try to get my card again that way.”
A score of 64 was particularly welcome for both De Sousa, who has not made a cut in five Challenge Tour appearances this season, and McArthur, who has made one from six attempts.
De Sousa said: “I was patient out there, which hasn’t been the case in the last few tournaments. I tried to stay calm. I’ve felt like my game has been good recently but I haven’t been scoring well, so I have missed the last few cuts. So I’ve been working on my rhythm and being patient and although I didn’t hole many putts at the start, I kept trying and they began to fall.
“You have to be very accurate from the tee on this course. It’s important to get your ball on the fairway because the rough is very thick. Hitting out of the rough makes it tricky to control the distance, and sometimes you can’t even reach the green from it.
“But if you keep it on the fairway you’ll have a lot of short irons to the green. The greens are not that tricky. They are either very slopey or not sloped at all, so if you put the ball in the right spots the putts are very straightforward.
“It was nice to be out second this morning because it was a lot cooler. On the back nine it started to get very hot and it makes it more difficult to concentrate.”
McArthur was delighted to banish the demons that have been plaguing his campaign so far.
He said: “I’ve not been playing well at all, but today was half-decent. I holed a few putts and hit my irons a lot better, but I was just trying not to hit it in the rough. The course is set up beautifully, but it’s difficult.
“I didn’t hit many drivers or three-woods; I just hit it on the fairways with irons. I’ve been working very hard on my game lately and it’s been quite tough.
“It was good to make a decent start and maintain it. Before, even if I birdied the first couple I’d throw in a few bogeys and before you know it it’s a struggle. It’s been like that for a while, and not very enjoyable. Even if I’m under par, you wouldn’t believe the thoughts that go through my head.”