Striking the right balance between practice and rest is crucial for the modern sportsman and after recharging his batteries in Amsterdam Maarten Lafeber charged to the top of the first round leaderboard at the Smurfit Kappa European Open.
Given the amount of water that had fallen on The K Club in the past week, Dutchman Lafeber probably felt at home on the rain-sodden Smurfit Course almost as much as he had beside the canals of Holland’s most famous city.
European Tour Officials took the decision to move the tees forward at seven holes for Thursday’s first round after prolonged and heavy showers had flooded some of the landing areas. The most significant change was at the 18th, which has been reduced from a 578 yard par five to a par three of 162 yards due to the lay-up area being saturated with water. This made the Smurfit Course a par 70.
Lafeber failed to capitalise at the 18th but birdies flowed freely elsewhere as, thanks to preferred lies and some straight hitting, he plotted his way round without dropping a drop.
A two metre putt at the tenth, his first, saw him move into red figures immediately and more were to follow at the 16th, first, fifth and seventh holes. The 2003 Dutch Open champion then capped a fine display by holing a chip for a birdie two at the eighth, which took him to six under par and one clear of four players sharing second place.
Headlining the quartet on five under par 65 was the in-form Niclas Fasth of Sweden, who recently captured the BMW International Open the week after scooping fourth place in the US Open.
Alongside side him were Frenchman Grégory Havret, India’s Jyoti Randhawa and England’s Robert Rock, while sixth place a stroke further back was occupied defending champion Stephen Dodd of Wales, Søren Kjeldsen of Denmark and Patrik Sjoland of Sweden.
Both Lafeber and Randhawa chose to forgo a practice round ahead of the tournament in order to catch up on some much-needed rest after playing in the 36-hole Open Final Qualifying at Sunningdale on Monday, and both felt the benefit.
Lafeber said: “Last week in Paris was one of the toughest courses we play on Tour and then I went to London for Open Qualifying. It was tiring and I felt that, particularly with my knee injury, I needed treatment on it so I went home.
“I thought: refresh the mind, go home for a day and a half and come back on Wednesday afternoon. I know the golf course well and my caddie came out and did some good preparation.”
Lafeber was fourth behind Fasth in Munich two weeks ago and the champion from that week continued his impressive run of form with a bogey-free card of five birdies.
“I am on form, very much so,” commented the Swede. “It's been building up all year. I was very happy with the way I came out playing early in the year. I didn't get the win, but I was up there contending a few times and had a few good tournaments.
“The win didn't come until just recently, but in general this year I've been very, very happy and I'm more comfortable on the course. The swing is a bit more stable and the game is generally stronger.”
The Ryder Cup player paid tribute to the work done by the European Tour Officials and greens staff in setting the course up in such inclement weather.
“The greens are fantastic. You almost can't tell it's been raining, which is a huge testament to the people here setting it all up for us. It's fantastic.”
The rain failed to deter the crowds as 22,957 came through the gates on ‘Ulster Bank Free Thursday’, many of whom followed home favourite Padraig Harrington and US Open Champion Angel Cabrera as both racked up one over par 71s.
There was also huge interest in two players returning from long-term injury, David Howell and Ian Woosnam of Wales. Howell was round in one under par 69 while Woosnam double-bogeyed the last for a 70.
“It was great to be out there to be honest. I have been chomping at the bit to come out on Tour and even though the weather wasn’t very welcoming, I enjoyed myself out there,” commented Howell, who has not completed a tournament since the Masters because of wrist and back injuries.
“Funnily enough the one thing I didn’t do too well today was putt, which is normally my strong point. You can’t be too greedy with your first round back in almost three months and I shot under par in pretty testing conditions, so I guess I should be pretty happy.”
Not as happy as Andres Romero was when the young Argentine aced the 17th with a seven iron to win a Renault Megane Cabriolet.
“To win a car was a complete bonus today as I wasn’t scoring great. It’s perfect as I don’t actually own one, as I drive a Dodge van, so I can’t wait to hit the beaches in Argentina with the roof down once I get the car shipped home.”
It is the second prize for Romero in as many days as yesterday his Fáilte Ireland team won the morning Pro-Am.