Northern Ireland’s Michael Hoey threatened to record the first 59 in European Tour history before settling for a share of the lead on a low-scoring opening day of the Rocco Forte Open in Sicily.
Hoey fired eight birdies in his first 11 holes at Verdura Golf Club and after a run of four straight pars, another birdie on the eighth left him needing to play his final two holes – having started from the 11th – in three under.
A superb approach to the par-five ninth left Hoey with a 20-foot putt for eagle, but the 38-year-old left his attempt short and did the same with a birdie putt on the last.
The resulting ten-under-par 61 was still the lowest round of Hoey’s career and took him alongside Sweden’s Sebastian Soderberg at the top of the leaderboard, with South Africa’s Zander Lombard a shot behind.
“I left it in the jaws, both putts, but I was nervous,” admitted Hoey, who has won five times on the European Tour but lost his card last year. “It was hard to hit them past the hole but it’s nice to be nervous because I haven’t been nervous on a golf course for quite a while and it’s exciting to have such a good score. My best ever score by two shots, no bogeys, it doesn’t get much better.
“We’ve had two kids [since 2013] and it’s been tiring. I had to have sinus surgery done a couple of years ago. I haven’t been as healthy as I wanted to be, so hopefully now I can get going.”
Playing in just his 15th European Tour event after gaining his card via the qualifying school last year, Soderberg was also eight under par after 11 holes and admitted breaking the magical 60 barrier was very much on his mind.
“That’s all I thought about walking down the par-five 12th, it kind of helped keep me going,” Soderberg said. “I didn’t feel like it stopped me, I definitely had a couple of putts the last seven holes that could have gone in, but overall it was a great round.”
Soderberg birdied the 17th and 18th to complete the lowest round of his career as more than 100 players took advantage of the ideal conditions to break par. Spain’s Alvaro Quiros was in a tie for fourth after a 63 which included a hole-in-one from 191 yards on the 13th and seven birdies to carry on from where he left off after a closing 65 in Portugal last week. After winning twice on the European Tour in 2011 Quiros was ranked 21st in the world, but has gradually slipped to his current position of 703rd and missed 15 cuts in 23 events last season.
“Back in 2012 I decided to improve my swing, thinking that I should be a little bit more consistent, that I should be a more steady player and it really ruined everything, technically speaking,” Quiros said.
“I’m not one of the clever guys on Tour. I shouldn’t be looking to be more like Edoardo Molinari, a precision guy, somebody who wants to control everything, I’m not like that. That was my mistake.” Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn was four shots off the lead despite a flawless 65, while Glasgow’s Scott Henry enjoyed a welcome return to form. Henry has missed the cut in all ten events he’s played this season but shrugged that off to be best of the Scots with a five-under 66, the highlight of which was an eagle at the par-five 12th.
Fellow countryman Scott Jamieson was three shots further back at two under par while Chris Doak carded a level par 71. Craig Lee and Duncan Stewart will hope to make up ground in the second round after shooting a 75 and 76 respectively.