Gary Stal (Getty Images)
Challenge Tour graduates Morten Ørum Madsen and Gary Stal showed their European Tour credentials as they joined Chile’s Felipe Aguilar in a three-way tie for the lead at the Open de España.
Frenchman Stal – who won twice en route to finishing 17th on last season’s Challenge Tour – had four birdies in his bogey-free round at Parador de El Saler.
“My game is good,” said Stal, who chipped to a foot at the 15th. “This is my first time on the leaderboard – I like that!”
Dane Madsen, 25, hails from the same Silkeborg GK club as Thomas Björn, and had five birdies and one bogey in his matching four under par 68.
“It was a very solid round, I’m really happy,” said Madsen – who almost chipped in for eagle at the fifth – and graduated 19th on last season’s Challenge Tour.
“I enjoy playing challenging conditions. I’ve been playing solidly most of the season, obviously today I played really well.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was little.”
In comparison to his co-leaders 38 year old Aguilar is something of a veteran, but after three top-ten finishes at the start of 2013 hinted that he might be about to end his five-year wait for a second European Tour title, he then failed to make the cut or break 70 in his next three events.
However, Aguilar was back to his best with six birdies and two bogeys as he set the target score for the afternoon starters.
"This course is playing very nicely - especially in the morning with very little wind,” said Aguilar. “The conditions are absolutely fantastic. It's a very difficult golf course if you miss the fairways off the tee; as long as you keep it on the fairway off the tee you get pretty good chances. The greens are rolling really nicely.
“Four under is a good score anywhere, so I'm quite happy with it.
“I took a couple of weeks off which was good for me. I realised that I needed some time off to relax and get my putts together and forget about bogeys and double bogeys.
“I still enjoy playing this game, that's why I'm here, and as long as I keep doing that hopefully the scores will come around.
“I played really good at the start of the season in the desert, so my card is pretty much secure. Now I'm playing for The Race to Dubai and to get up in my World Ranking points.
“Usually the wind picks up in the afternoon, so being in the top spots during the morning is pretty good. Tomorrow afternoon will be a decision day and it's going to be a little windier, so we'll see how it goes."
Eight players were tied for fourth on three under; including Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño who continued the good form that saw him finish tied 20th at the Masters Tournament with a 69, while compatriot Sergio Garcia was among those round in level par.
“I think three under is a great start,” said Fernandez-Castaño. “I played some steady golf and got a couple of lucky breaks when I needed them and I holed some nice putts.
“This course is second to none, one of my favourites in the world. I think the Spanish Federation alongside with Reale Seguros is doing a great job in moving the Spanish Open around the best courses in the country and this stop was very much obliged. It’s good to be back on the European Tour, this is my home tour, and, of course, it's nice to be back in Spain.
“I have to say that what I did last week is starting to sink in now. I was very disappointed at the end of the week because I really believed I had a chance to do something special because of the way I hit the ball. But my short game wasn’t half as good as it should have been. But now I am realizing that I played a pretty good tournament and I am also learning from the experience for the next time I go to Augusta National.”
Miguel Angel Jiménez, in his first event of 2013 after breaking his leg skiing in December, was slightly rusty as he carded a 76.