Ernie Els and Robert Karlsson, two confirmed front runners, found themselves hunted down by a pack of five players, including a pair of 49 year olds in Mark McNulty and Eduardo Romero, after the first round of the Omega European Masters in the Alpine splendour of Crans-sur-Sierre.
South African Els fired a six under par 65 on a gloriously sunny afternoon to draw level with defending champion Karlsson, who posted his score before lunchtime. The Swede led all the way 12 months ago and has now added a fifth successive round at Crans-sur-Sierre without being overhauled.
McNulty, 50 in October and Romero, who has to wait until next July to join the ranks of senior golfers, re-emphasised the fact that the game is not just for supple youngsters as they ground out excellent 66s to share third spot with Norway’s Henrik Bjornstad, Paul Eales of England and Frenchman, Marc Farry.
Els, who closed on Sunday with a 64 in the BMW International Open, opened with a pair of birdies and did not look back. The current Volvo Order of Merit leader said: “I am not complaining. I finally made some putts towards the end of last week’s tournament so I felt good coming into this event.
“I think it’s the first time I’ve gone deep into red figures on this course and I am looking forward to the rest of the week. It was a good three ball with Michael Campbell and Ricardo Gonzalez shooting four under par and it felt good to feed off the other guys.”
Karlsson, two strokes clear going into the final round in Munich last week, always kept his nose in front at Crans-sur-Sierre last year and showed no sign of changing that pattern at a location which suits his frame of mind.
“It’s easy to relax here and have a good week with the family” he explained. “I think people try to relax and enjoy the village. When the practice facilities are not so great people tend to practise less, enjoy it more and play even better! Every time I step onto the seventh tee the view puts a smile on my face.”
Romero, like Karlsson, was a wire-to-wire winner three years ago and the Argentinian certainly enjoyed himself over a course he loves dearly, even out-driving one of his playing partners, Colin Montgomerie, by a massive 50 yards at one hole. He laughed: “I hit my drive 365 yards – a long way past Monty – and I turned to him and said: ‘Not bad for an old man!’”
Starting at the tenth, Romero bogeyed two of the first four holes but didn’t “wake up”, as he put it, until his back nine and his two-putt birdie four at the last helped him race home in 30 for a round of 66. Montgomerie, despite Romero’s show of strength, also made a birdie four at the ninth for a round of 70.
McNulty took a leaf out of Romero’s book as well, idling along in neutral until the turn. He then fired a seven wood second to four feet for an eagle three at the first and followed that with four more birdies for an inward 31.
The Zimbabwean had studied an old video of himself on Tuesday – following a recommendation from his coach, David Leadbetter – and realised that he had been moving his head imperceptibly over his putts. By addressing that problem, the dividend was instantaneous.
Meanwhile Patrik Sjöland, the 1998 runner-up, enjoyed a profitable day, shooting a 67 which included a hole in one at the eighth. His seven iron took two hops and disappeared below ground, earning the Swede an Omega watch. A case of perfect timing meeting perfect timing!