Michele Reale delighted the home crowds as he stormed into a share of the lead alongside England’s Mark Roe in the Atlanet Italian Open after an opening round of 63, nine under par, at Is Molas as he attempts to become the first Italian winner on home soil since 1980.
Reale, who topped the Challenge Tour Rankings in 1997, is currently languishing in 201st place in the Volvo Order of Merit and knows that nothing short of victory will be enough to secure his playing rights for the 2002 European Tour season.
The 30 year old has made only nine cuts this season having been hampered by a recurring injury to his right arm suffered on the range four years ago. But after putting his fears that he may need an operation to correct the tendon trouble to the back of his mind, Reale was in inspired form in the opening round, with seven birdies and an eagle taking him clear of the field. The highlight was undoubtedly the eagle two on the fourth, his 13th, when he holed his seven iron approach from 165 yards having birdied the three previous holes. His round of 63 was only one shot outside the course record set by Pierre Fulke last year. No Italian golfer has managed to win on home soil since Massimo Mannelli triumphed at Rome Golf Club in 1980.
"This year I have not played well," admitted Reale. "I have had a big problem with a tendon in my right arm and maybe in December I will have an operation. It's been a problem for four or five years.
"I've also had a problem with the short putter, so I changed to a long one three weeks ago and I'm putting much better with it."
Reale was joined at the top of the leaderboard by Roe who managed to equal his lowest round in 17 years on The European Tour despite never having laid eyes on the course before teeing up for the first round.
Roe arrived in Sardinia for the first time on Wednesday afternoon and decided to have a cup of coffee rather than walk a few holes. Playing the course blind he proceeded to notch up eight birdies and an eagle with just one dropped shot. Even a one hour delay due to the threat of lightning could not dampen his round as he hit a three wood to 20 feet before the siren sounded on the 15th and then calmly walked out an hour later to hole the eagle putt. Four birdies on the last four holes simply put the icing on the cake.
The 38-year-old is in danger of losing his Tour card as he lies in 131st place in the Volvo Order of Merit but seems non-plussed by the situation he finds himself in and is determined to play a shortened schedule next year whatever the outcome of this week.
“I teed up on the course not knowing where I was going but sometimes that can work,” he said. “You got a yardage book, you’ve got yardages and as you can see from the score I played pretty good.
“There’s nothing at stake for me really. I’m not worried about the situation I am in. Other people seem more worried about it than I am. I’ve been out here 17 years. I’ve made a decision I am not going to go back to the Tour School whatever happens and next year I will play what few events I get off my ranking and maybe ask for a few invitations.
“I always wanted to retire at 40 and that was a goal I set for myself. I can see that happening. I’ve got two young children and this lifestyle puts an awful lot of pressure on your family life. That’s the most important thing for me – my children and my wife.
“Today was a great round of golf. I love shooting 63 anywhere. It equals my lowest round on Tour. But win this, second or 20th it isn’t going to make any difference to my decision. I’m going to play less golf next year.”
Two strokes behind leaders is Sweden’s Fredrik Andersson, another player fighting for his playing privileges. Andersson is currently lying in 126th place in the Volvo Order of Merit and needs to climb into the top 115 if he is to avoid a third successive visit to the Qualifying School Finals. His round was helped with two eagles, at the 16th and the first but two dropped shots cost him a share of the lead.
“I wouldn’t say I struck the ball perfectly but played all right and got a few of the putts in,” he said. “Of course two eagles at 16 and the first help.
“It is an important week for me. I’m 126th in the Order of Merit so I need a good one to get into the top 115. I don’t know what I need – I don’t think I want to know. I can only play and do my best and if it is enough it is enough. I felt okay today. I might be a little bit nervous if I play well and get a chance to get into the top 115.”
The defending champion Ian Poulter made a solid start to the defence of his Italian Open title with a first round of 67, five under par, but it was a round that could have been much better. Poulter, who sealed European Tour Rookie of the Year honours with his maiden win here last year, said: "It could have been very low; it was all there. I'm not over happy. But five under is okay, and it will definitely get better.
"The way I'm hitting the ball means the practice I put in over last week is paying off.”
With play suspended for one hour due to he threat of lightening the first round could not be completed before darkness fell with 15 players left out on the course. They will resume their first rounds at 7.10am with the second round progressing as planned.
One other unusual aspect of this tournament is fact that no fewer than five sets of brothers are in the field this week. The co-leader Michele Reale joins his brother Stefano alongside Marco and Luca Bernadini, twin brothers Marco and Stefano Soffieti , Francesco and Edoardo Molinari and Dennis and Tony Edlund.