Ernie Els shot a brilliant eight under par 64 in the opening round of the Heineken Classic at Royal Melbourne to open up a two shot advantage over Welshman Mark Pilkington.
The South African birdied his opening hole, the tenth on the composite course, only to drop a shot on the very next hole. But the double US Open Champion was soon into his stride with three birdies over the next seven holes for an outward half of 33. A blistering start to his back nine with four birdies in the first five holes after the turn took him clear of the field and a ninth birdie of the round on the final hole concluded a wonderful round.
“I will play as well as I can this week and see how it goes,” said Els. “I enjoy playing this course and feel really good.
“You have half the battle won when you feel like playing the course. It is a big help and a really good feeling.”
It was a day of low scoring at Royal Melbourne with 52 of the 156 players shooting sub-par rounds and one of the last to finish was Pilkington. Playing in the penultimate group the 23 year old made the most of the Melbourne evening to finish with a bogey free six under par 66.
A further shot adrift lie a group of five players including local favourite Adam Scott and six time Major Champion Nick Faldo, chasing his first title since the 1997 Nissan Open. His five under par 67 included a bogey, four birdies and an eagle on the par five second but it was on the greens he made his score with only 27 putts.
"This is one of the great courses in the world, but there is a fear factor to it,” said Faldo. “It's a severe test, and you have to respect it.
"When you don't have much local knowledge you have to make some calculated guesses about the wind and the bounces. It keeps us on our toes.
"I was scrambling a bit at the end and I was not happy with the way I was swinging it. But it's a long time since I've felt a bit of pressure, and I hung in there."
Faldo’s playing partner Peter Lonard also shot a 67 which included a superb back nine of 32, helped by an eagle on the tenth. New Zealand amateur Eddie Lee, playing in the very last group was the other player to finish with a 67.
John Daly and Greg Norman attracted the biggest crowds in the afternoon, with ‘The Shark’ finishing with a three under par 68 while Daly slipped back late in his round for one under par 71.
The shot of the day came from New Zealander David Smail, last year’s runner-up behind Michael Campbell, who followed up an eagle on his 11th hole, the second on the card, with a hole-in-one at the 176 yard third hole.
Campbell began his bid for a Heineken Classic hat-trick with a four under par 68 as he attempts to become only the fifth player since the birth on The European Tour in 1972 to win a title three years in succession.