Sweden’s Robert Karlsson and Mark Pilkington of Wales shared the double achievement of carding course record nine under par 63s at Doha Golf Club and claiming joint ownership of the lead after the first round of the Qatar Masters.
The duo took advantage of the benign early morning conditions, which included the absence of the traditional Shamal winds, to better the previous best of 64 set jointly by Andrew Sherborne and David Carter during the inaugural tournament in 1998.
Karlsson and Pilkington finished the first round two shots ahead of Frenchman Olivier Edmond while five players opened with creditable 66s to claim a share of fourth, Roger Wessels, Marco Bernardini, Marcus Brier, Angel Cabrera and Massimo Scarpa.
Of the leading pair, former Welsh amateur international Pilkington claimed the honour of being the first to break the record, playing as he did in the opening match which teed off at 6.30am and which turned into a two-ball with Henrik Bjornstad after Sweden’s Per Nyman withdrew from the tournament.
But far from being a hindrance, the move proved to be a blessing for Pilkington who was quickly into his stride, eagling his opening hole, the 510 yard tenth, thanks to a crisply struck four iron to the centre of the green and a confidently struck 20 foot putt.
“The putt was a nice way to settle myself down but really all three shots on the opening hole were pretty good,” said Pilkington, who as usual had his father John, a professional at the Pwllheli club in north Wales, on the bag.
“Being in a two was great as well because we could play at our own pace and just get on with things, and of course we had the best part of the day. There was precious little wind and it was a lot cooler at that time of the morning.”
The 22 year old Welshman continued in a similar vein, birdieing the 13th and the three holes in a row from the 16th to be ‘out’ in six under par 30. His assault on the Doha course continued at the first hole where pitched to six feet and holed for birdie four and further gains at the fourth and seventh, saw him ‘home’ in 33 for a perfect morning’s work.
Having carded his lowest ever round as a professional finally convinced Pilkington that his decision to prioritise this year was paying off. He said: “In the first year I got my card (1999) I struggled a bit because I tried to play both the European Tour and the Challenge Tour and I ended up spreading myself too thinly.”
After finishing 213th on the Volvo Order of Merit, the Welshman failed to get his card in the Qualifying School, but did not make the same mistake at the end of last season, finishing 27th at San Roque to earn his playing privileges for the 2001 season.
“I’ve played four events up to now and done okay but I’m in the same position as all the rest of the guys in my Category – I’m just trying to do as well as I can before the re-rank comes into play. But I’ve made the cut in the last couple of weeks and I felt I’ve been playing pretty well and putting nicely, so I suppose a round like this has been coming.”
Fellow pacesetter Karlsson could have led on his own but suffered the ignominy of a bogey six at his final hole, the 580 yard ninth, after he pulled his drive too far left into an unplayable lie from where he had to take a penalty drop.
Elsewhere however it was nothing but joy for the man who narrowly missed out on an automatic place in the 1999 Ryder Cup team, notching ten birdies in all, the longest holed putt being from 20 feet on the 12th, the shortest being on the seventh where his nine iron approach ended a mere three inches from the cup.
“Funnily enough I struggled a bit with my driver all day but otherwise it was good out there. I hit really, really good iron shots and when I hit it in to ten or 12 feet, I tended to take my chances.”
After the heights of 1999, Karlsson struggled on the European Tour last year, just keeping his card by the narrowest of margins after finishing 114th on the Volvo Order of Merit. But the Swede has shown signs of recovery this season with eighth place finishes in both the Heineken Classic and the Greg Norman Holden International.
“I definitely analysed what went wrong but I’m not sure I figured it out,” he said. “I had really high expectations for myself last year and I started well. In my first tournament in Brazil I was third after three days and ended up with a 78 to finish nowhere (He tied 30th). I didn’t really play badly, I don’t know what it was. I also played badly on the last day in the Benson & Hedges and the Volvo PGA as well and from there it was a struggle. But it is getting better.”
Third placed Edmond repeated Pilkington’s feat of eagling the tenth hole and also notched five birdies in his flawless 67, but the shot of the day came from one of the players tied for fourth place, South African Roger Wessels, who holed his eight iron approach shot from 157 yards at the 419 yard sixth hole for a spectacular eagle two.
An indication of the harder, windier conditions faced by the later starters, was the fact that of the leading eight players, only Angel Cabrera and Massimo Scarpa played the bulk of their rounds in the afternoon, and both had to birdie both the 17th and 18th holes to join the group at six under par.