John Bickerton took the first steps to erasing the memory of losing a play-off last year by taking a share of the first round lead in the Algarve Portuguese Open at Le Meridien Penina.
Bickerton’s 68, four under par was equalled by Welshman Phillip Price, a past champion who has already recorded two top tens this season including finishing runner-up in the first event of the year.
Last year Bickerton enjoyed the best season of his career by finishing 20th in the Volvo Order of Merit after graduating from the Challenge Tour and then recording seven top tens including his defeat at the hands of Van Phillips in this event. Those performances opened new doors for the 30-year-old from Droitwich as he is now exempt for the Open Championship and will form part of the Great Britain and Ireland team in the new Seve Ballesteros Trophy in April.
“I’ll take that any day,” he said. “I birdied the first which gave me some confidence on the greens. But the course is playing tough and the scoring is reflecting that.”
Indeed many players had never known Penina playing so long, with little run on the fairways and a tough wind to contend with.
Price, winner of the Portuguese Open in 1994 at Penha Longa, fired six birdies in his round but two hooked shots at the first and the 17th proved costly. “I’ve always been struggling with a hook and it crept in a couple of times today,” he said. “But I’m playing well and scoring well. It’s a good start.”
One shot off the pace are the trio of Jean-Francios Remesy, Russell Claydon and Gary Orr. Remesy, who won the Estoril Open at Penha Longa last year to bring an end to 12 successive visits to the Qualifying School Finals, started solidly enough with eight pars and a bogey over his first nine holes, but then burst into life with four successive birdies from the third, his 12th. Although he dropped a shot on the seventh he added another birdie to his card for a round of 69.
Orr, whose only missed cut since the Qatar Masters last year was in the Open Championship, has yet to win on the European Tour despite coming agonisingly close on a number of occasions. Last season he picked up five top tens including runner-up in the TNT Dutch Open on his way to finishing 21st in the Volvo Order of Merit.
Claydon has spent the winter shedding some of his ample frame but rather than feeling the better for his new diet, he “just feels hungry all the time”, he says. His 69 on a course he openly admits is a bit tight for him, included three successive birdies from the tenth.
Ronan Rafferty, back in action on the European Tour after almost two years out of the game with a thumb injury, shot a three over par 75 but the former European Tour Number One was just happy to be out on the golf course again. “It was fun,” he said. “Nice and peaceful. I think it will take most of the season to get rid of the rust. But I’ve got no expectations. I feel going out to play is a bonus.”
Ian Woosnam, one of the pre-tournament favourites, shot an 74 after finding trouble in a ditch on the fifth and then three putting for a double bogey 7.