Denmark’s Thomas Björn, fresh from a break in his winter residence of Dubai, hit the ground running in his first competitive round of 2004, picking up seven shots in his first ten holes to lead the Johnnie Walker Classic at Alpine Golf and Sports Club, Bangkok, Thailand, with an eight under par 64.
Björn took a one stroke lead over England’s Nick Faldo, who turned back the clock with a vintage round of 65 to underline the 46 year old’s determination to record his first victory on The European Tour International Schedule after a decade’s absence.
“Very rarely do I play well after a long break” said Björn, sounding surprised at his own excellent effort to launch the year. “It normally takes me a little while to get into it but this is only round one. We’ve got three rounds to go and I will make my judgement on Sunday, not Thursday.”
The Danish Ryder Cup player birdied three of the first five holes; struck a majestic five wood to within a foot of the hole for an eagle at the seventh and birdied the tenth to sweep to seven under par. A lone bogey halted the momentum, but only briefly as he birdied the 14th and 15th to climb to the top of the leaderboard at Alpine with a round just one off the course record.
He added: “At the end I hit some loose shots and, at this early stage of the year, it was a case of just getting into the clubhouse and being happy! It’s hard to come out having just hit balls on the range but I did a lot of good work with Pete Cowen in Dubai and this is a wonderful start.”
Faldo, meanwhile, reaped the reward of a month spent practicing in the steamy Thai heat and sunshine by racing home in 30 blows for a seven under par 65 and outright second place, one ahead of a pair of Australians in Scott Gardiner and Jarrod Moseley, England’s Ian Poulter and former American Walker Cup player, Edward Loar.
“Very good for day one of a New Year” observed the six-time Major Champion, proving he is still keen and competitive in his 47th year and 28th season on The European Tour. All those miles on the clock and the Englishmen retains his enthusiasm for the game – and perhaps even a record 12th Ryder Cup appearance.
After finishing his first round of 204 with seven birdies in the last eight holes, Faldo basked in the spotlight once more and said: “This is great. I just played aggressively and rushed in the putts. I was really pleased. I kept myself focused on every single hole.
“This was my first round since Hong Kong at the start of December and I’ve been in Phuket for the last four weeks resting. I had three goals – one, to rest; one to train physically and one to practice. I’ve done an awful lot of swinging practice. I haven’t hit a lot of balls. I didn’t want to go out and hit balls and do it wrong.
“The last two weeks I played nine holes every afternoon. That’s been good because I’ve been playing with some friends who are fairly competitive. I’ve been playing only one ball and trying very deliberately to read every single putt.”
Faldo become the first recipient of the PGA’s lifetime achievement award last month but seemed determined to show it was not an honour for a great golfer past his best. He said: “I’ve got some good goals this year – obviously Ryder Cup is the main one and to do that I’ve got to do some really good stuff. Simple as that.”
While Faldo aims towards a dozen Ryder Cup appearances, Poulter is seeking his debut at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan in September. The Englishman finished 11th in the points list in 2001 but would relish the chance to gain an automatic place this year.
Yet, less than an hour before his tee time in Bangkok, Poulter was unsure whether he would play in the first round. He explained: “I wasn’t too comfortable as I was on the massage table for 40 minutes before I started and didn’t actually think I was going to be able to play.
“I’ve had a chest infection for a couple of weeks now struggled to get rid of it. I was coughing a lot during the night and don’t know if I dislodged a rib or pulled a muscle but I had physio and took strong pain killers. Hopefully it won’t recur.”
Poulter added: “It’s a pretty exciting year ahead. I am in all the Majors this year and the WGC – Accenture Match Play for the first time. That gives me the opportunity to give these events a really good go and get myself into the Ryder Cup Team early.”
Poulter spent the day in the group behind Faldo, watching the 46 year old make putt after putt and he said: “Nick’s game is still in shape. When it’s a tough course like this, he’s a gutsy character. If he plays well he’s going to score well.”
Open Champion, Ben Curtis, went out in 37 but found top gear coming home in 31 for a four under par 68. He commented: “I played a lot better on the back nine. I’ve been hitting it well so far but I couldn’t get the putter going.”
Defending champion, Ernie Els of South Africa, finished with a modest two under par 70 in his first competitive round since his successful defence of the Sony Open in Hawaii a fortnight ago. However Els shrugged: “Not too bad a start but I can play a lot better than that.”