Three weeks after securing his first Challenge Tour title, Raymond Russell returned to Italy to lead the Doubletree by Hilton Acaya Open thanks to a five under par 65 in the first round.
The Scotsman, who turns 40 next week, won the Challenge Provincia di Varese in northern Italy last month, and the south of the country proved as productive a hunting ground as he notched six birdies and one bogey at the stunning Acaya Golf Resort near Lecce.
That gave him a one shot lead over Denmark’s Joachim B Hansen, while Spaniard Raul Quiros and Englishmen Chris Lloyd and Matthew Southgate had two under par rounds of 68.
Only eight players were under par in the first round as strong winds and thick rough proved a stern test, but Russell capitalised with some straight hitting.
“I played well today,” said Russell, who played on The European Tour between 1996, the year he won the Air Frances Cannes Open, and 2006. “It’s the sort of course where you have to keep it on the fairway, otherwise you are in huge trouble. That’s what I did – it’s simple when you can do that.
“It’s similar to the course in Varese in that you have to keep out of the rough, but it’s even tougher here. I had a great four at the seventh after hitting it in the water off the tee. I hit my second shot to the front of the green and chipped in.
“Winning has helped me see things more clearly and it gives me confidence. The week after the victory I played in Local Final Qualifying for The Open and missed out by a couple of shots. That was disappointing. And last week I played terribly in the first round (of the Credit Suisse Challenge) and shot three under in the second to miss the cut by one.
“So it’s nice to open with a good score here, and hopefully I can keep this going.”
Hansen has been showing some promising form in recent weeks, making the cut in his last four events and not finishing worse than 28th.
He attributed his fine score to his approach play, saying: “I hit it close to the pin and holed out well all day. I started par, double-bogey, which wasn’t great, but I’m pleased with the way I bounced back and took my chances for birdies.
“I had four in a row from the 16th (having teed off from the tenth), which was a good run. It was disappointing to finish with two bogeys, but I definitely would have taken four under at the start of the day.”
Lloyd, 20, is playing his second season on the Challenge Tour and is relieved to return to form after a wrist injury kept him out of action for several weeks earlier in the season.
“It’s a course where you really have to stay patient and there are a few holes where par is a really good score,” said the Bristol man. “The first hole is really the only one playing into the wind, and the par fives are all reachable, so there are chances out there if you hit it straight. It’s more of a mental challenge.
“I played nicely and my bad shots were not too bad. I hit it in the water on the 14th, but then hit a three iron from the drop and holed the putt for a four. So I was potentially looking at a six but made par. I scrambled really well today.
“My wrist is fine now and I’m back to playing well again. I was a bit rusty for a while and had a shocker in Saint-Omer. Then I shot a 62 in Scottish Hydro Challenge but missed the cut the following week, so it has been up and down but I’m feeling good now.
“I had last week off and just spent time in the gym and preparing. I’m feeling really refreshed and ready for the second half of the season.”