Ricardo Gonzalez took the first steps towards an Argentinian double at Crans-sur-Sierre after an opening round of 66, five under par, gave him a one shot lead in the Omega European Masters.
Gonzalez is hoping to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Eduardo Romero who won the title by a massive ten strokes last year and become only the fifth golfer from Argentina to win a European Tour event.
His opening round included five birdies and an eagle three on the 14th as he moved ahead of a group of five players on five under par - Ryder Cup player Thomas Björn, the Scottish pair of Gordon Brand Jnr and Dean Robertson, Germany’s Thomas Gögele and Henrik Nyström of Sweden.
Gonzalez is among the new crop of Argentinian players to play on The European Tour having graduated from the Challenge Tour in 1998. Like so many Argentine professionals before him he started out as a caddie in his home town of Formosa in northern Argentina before turning professional.
So far this season has recorded five top ten finishes but the closest he has come to victory came in the 2000 Mercedes Benz South African Open when he game within a putt of forcing a play-off.
Renowned as a big hitter, the 31 year old has found an extra 20 yards at the high altitude in the spectacular Swiss Alps, most noticeably on the 14th where he smashed a drive 330 yards before hitting a four wood 250 yards to 15 feet for his eagle. Two more birdies coming home completed a good days work.
“Every player waits for a low round like that,” he said. “I hit the ball longer but then it is difficult to judge the distance. Sometimes you can hit a seven or eight iron 200 yards.
“It is a good start. I want to win this week because not many Argentinians have won on The European Tour. Everyone looks to Eduardo, Vicente Fernandez, Roberto de Vicenzo and every player wants to be like them. It would mean a great deal to follow Eduardo this week.”
Björn, one of two members of the European Ryder Cup team in the field this week who will face the United States at The De Vere Belfry later this month, showed he is right on top of his game with a round of five birdies and no dropped shots.
“It’s a nice start, said Björn. “This course is going to give you birdies. If you keep the mistakes out you are going to shoot a good number. I went out there and didn’t make any bogeys. It was just a good days work where you went out and produced the number you needed to produce.
“Hopefully I will be there on Sunday and do better than last Sunday. I feel my game is coming on nicely. But I feel my game is right where I want it. It’s solid. I’m not making any mistakes. I feel comfortable on the golf course and this is the right time of year to feel like that.”
Robertson is also enjoying some good form, following his joint fourth finish last week in Munich with an opening 66 in Switzerland. Like Björn, the 1999 Italian Open champion didn’t drop a shot, crediting his good score to some crucial par saving putts.
"I’m putting well, holing key putts for par,” said the 31-year-old. “ I did that last week and the same again today. That has made the difference. On the front nine I holed some crucial putts for par – on the 11thm 16th and 17th all from about ten feet. Instead of shooting two or three under I am shooting five under and that is the difference.”
Nyström also enjoyed a resurgence in putting from thanks to some help form coach Denis Pugh last week in Munich. A change in rhythm has made all the difference as he rolled in five birdies and an eagle on route to his 66. Nyström currently lies in 140th place in the Volvo Order of Merit having missed eight of his last nine cuts. But his solid start has given him some encouragement as he fights to save his card as the season enters the home straight.
“I’ve got six tournaments to get my card,” he said. “It is pressure but I’ve still got six tournaments and it is very encouraging that my game is starting to come back.”
Gögele also credited his return to form to Pugh who gave him some coaching last week. The German has not had a good season, dropping to 161st in the Volvo Order of Merit but decided it was about time he earned some money and went out to join the group on five under par.
Brand Jnr is just 15 places above him in the Volvo Order or Merit but after bogeying two of his first four holes, hit back with seven birdies, including five in a back nine of 30.
Lee Westwood, the 1999 champion, back in action for the first time since injurying his wrist at the WGC – NEC Invitational, showed no ill effects from his injury in shooting a one under par 70 while World Number Four Ernie Els carded a level par 71, his four birdies cancelled out by four bogeys.
With the start of the first round delayed by one and a half hours due to early morning frost one group was unable to complete the first rounds. They will return at 8am to complete their last two holes with the rest of the field teeing off as scheduled.