Great Britain and Ireland took the first step towards retaining The Seve Trophy they won at Druids Glen last year when an impressive first day at Campo de Golf Parador El Saler in Valencia saw the visitors take a 3 ½ - 1 ½ lead over Continental Europe after the opening fourball session.
Colin Montgomerie, the Great Britain and Ireland captain, could only manage a half point with his partner Paul Lawrie in their match against newly crowned Volvo Masters Andalucia champion Fredrik Jacobson and Niclas Fasth, but admitted delight that almost everywhere else, his charges had come through in style.
“We would definitely have taken that if you had offered us a two point lead at the start of play so it has been a pretty good first day for us,” said the 40 year old Scot. “The competition is intense as you would expect but the standard of play has been excellent.
“I think myself and Paul’s better ball score of 65 was about the worst of the day which gives you a good indication of the standard of play, but as always this is turning out to be a great contest on an excellent golf course at a wonderful venue – I am already looking forward to the next three days.”
Ironically for Montgomerie, the day did not start well as his pairing of young English duo Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, touted by many as a future Ryder Cup partnership, found themselves up against a whirlwind in the shape of Alex Cejka and Raphaël Jacquelin.
The German/French alliance sprung from the traps in sensational fashion, winning the first six holes in figures of six under par, Jacquelin notching four birdies to Cejka’s two to give them real hope of recording a record winning margin in this, the third playing of The Seve Trophy, the previous best being Miguel Angel Jiménez and José Maria Olazábal’s 6 and 5 defeat of Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam in the inaugural match at Sunningdale in 2000.
Poulter and Rose stemmed the tide a little after that and actually won three holes in a row from the 12th to give them a glimmer of hope, but the gap proved to be too wide for the English pairing and Cejka and Jacquelin eventually put the first points on the board with a 4 and 3 win.
There was, however, better news for the next two English pairings on the course, namely Paul Casey and Brian Davis alongside David Howell and Lee Westwood, who closed out their respective matches within minutes of one another to give Great Britain and Ireland the lead.
Firstly Casey and Davis, who were never in front against Volvo PGA Champion Ignacio Garrido and his fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Jiménez, until the 15th hole, made no mistake when they eventually did scent victory, closing out a 2 and 1 win thanks to a Casey birdie two at the 213 yard 17th.
Moments later, Howell and Westwood put Great Britain and Ireland 2-1 ahead overall with a battling victory over Continental Europe captain Ballesteros and his old sparring partner José Maria Olazábal.
The Spaniards rekindled memories of their many Ryder Cup victories in tandem when Olazábal birdied the short fourth to go ahead. But Howell and Westwood quickly turned matters their way to leave them two ahead with two to play.
Even then the home favourites refused to throw in the towel, another Olazábal birdie at the par three 17th sending the match down the last. But any hopes of an amazing escape where ended by Howell who flew a superb four iron approach to within four feet of the hole for a conceded birdie three, the English duo winning by two holes.
Montgomerie and Lawrie then halved their match with Fasth and Jacobson to move the overall position to 2 ½ - 1 ½ before Great Britain and Ireland secured their two point overnight lead thanks largely to the individual performance of the day from Padraig Harrington.
The Irishman, who partnered Welshman Phillip Price against their Ryder Cup team-mates Thomas Björn and Sergio Garcia, was in irresistible form, the epitome of that coming in a scintillating spell on the outward half where he covered the four holes between the fourth and the seventh in five under par.
It moved Great Britain and Ireland four up and although Björn and Garcia battled bravely to reduce the deficit to one coming down the last, it was fitting that the match ended with another Harrington birdie, the Irishman rolling in a putt from 12 feet to win the match by two holes.
“I definitely got off to a fast start and that helped keep me going,” said Harrington. “I seemed to be hitting them close and didn’t seem to be missing too many putts either which left our opponents a bit too much to do on the back nine.”
Garcia conceded his opponent, on the day, had been just too hot to handle. “Padraig played unbelievably well,” said the Spaniard. “We did well turning for home but he had left us just too much to do.”
Garcia’s captain Ballesteros admitted the onus was now on his side to get back into contention in Friday’s play which, like the opening day, will feature five fourball matches.
“I will go and speak to my players now, see what they feel like, how they feel about tomorrow and then I will make the decision on my pairings,” said Ballesteros. “It was a tough day today but there is a long way still to go.”