Pulkkanen powers into Italy lead

Tapio Pulkkanen carded the lowest opening round of his European Tour career to take the lead ahead of an impressive chasing pack on day one of the Italian Open.

Tapio Pulkkanen

Olgiata Golf Club was playing host to the fifth Rolex Series event of the season and Finn Pulkkanen carded a 64 to get to seven under and lead the way from Rory Sabbatini.

European Tour affiliate member Sabbatini has six individual victories worldwide plus a World Cup triumph and there were a host of Major Championship, Rolex Series and European Tour winners in the group at five under.

Kurt Kitayama, Joost Luiten, Justin Rose, Shubhankar Sharma and Bernd Wiesberger have 27 European Tour wins between them including a U.S. Open Championship and three Rolex Series wins, and they will enter round two just two shots off the lead.

The day belonged to Pulkkanen, however, as the 2017 European Challenge Tour Number One went bogey free in his search for a first European Tour win.

The 64 matched his lowest ever score on the European Tour, set in just his fourth round after graduating at the Joburg Open last season, where he achieved a career best finish of third.

"I think the first year was a learning year," he said. "Second year has been more comfortable being here.

"I haven't played that well in the Rolex tournaments so it's kind of new situation as well but it's a long way to go and I feel good about my game.

"My putter was really hot today. I made a lot of putts, especially on the front nine, I was five under, I made a lot of long putts. It was perfect greens, so easy to make them."

Pulkkanen hit the front as he turned in 31 from the tenth with a birdie on the 11th and four in a row from the 14th - the highlight being a very long putt on the 15th.

American Kitayama also started on the back nine and after a bogey on the tenth, he picked up shots on the 11th, 12th, 15th, 16th and 17th to sit just one back.

He very briefly shared the lead with a birdie from ten feet at the third but Pulkkanen holed another long one on the fifth and a ten footer of his own on the next put the 29-year-old two ahead.

A Kitayama bogey on the sixth then left the leader three ahead as he parred his way home to set a daunting 18 hole target.

Kitayama - already a two time winner as a rookie on the 2019 Race to Dubai - then laid up on the ninth but hit a beautiful pitch to set up a closing birdie and cut the gap.

It looked for a long time in the afternoon like Pulkkanen would keep his two shot advantage but Slovakia's Sabbatini set about reeling him.

The 43-year-old birdied the 13th and eagled the par five 17th before further gains on the first, second and fourth had him within one. A poor chip on the eighth led to a dropped shot but he picked it straight back up at the par five next.

World Number Five Rose had some brilliant iron play to thank for his 66 as the Englishman came home in 31.

The 2013 U.S. Open champion sandwiched bogeys on the third and fifth with birdies on the first and seventh to turn in 35, but approaches to inside 15 feet on the 11th, 13th, 14th and 17th coupled with an up-and-down on the par five 15th sent him flying up the leaderboard

Wiesberger already has a Rolex Series title to his name in 2019 and the Austrian followed a long left to righter on the fourth with another gain on the fifth before taking advantage of the par five ninth and 17th. An approach to six feet on the last then completed his 66.

Dutchman Luiten made a fast start with birdies on the tenth, 12th and 14th and then broke a run of eight pars from 15 feet on the fifth before making another gain on the next.

Sharma birdied the fourth and seventh but gave a shot back on the eighth to turn in 34. The Indian made a gain on the 14th, put an approach to seven feet on the 16th, and an eagle on the next from long range saw him shoot up the leaderboard.

Englishmen Matthew Fitzpatrick and Andrew Johnston along with Dane Joachim B Hansen were at four under, a shot clear of a group including Rolex Series winners Tyrrell Hatton and Danny Willett.

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