Scotland’s Jack Doherty claimed the clubhouse lead on a weather affected first day of the inaugural NH Collection Open at La Reserva de Sotogrande.
After play had been delayed by two hours and 40 minutes because of heavy rain, Doherty overcame strong winds to card a three-under-par 69 to lead by one from Welshman Bradley Dredge.
Doherty came through the European Tour qualifying school in November at the 12th attempt, but has only made one cut so far this season, finishing joint 63rd in the Tshwane Open.
The 31-year-old carded six birdies and three bogeys to top the leaderboard, with two-time Tour winner Dredge shooting three birdies and just one bogey.
“It was a tough day,” Doherty said. “We had a 20-yard wind on the front nine and almost 30 yards on the back nine, which is a lot. The ball is going a long way downwind and it’s hardly going anywhere into the wind, but I practice on the west coast of Scotland which is normally quite windy, so I know how to play it and I just stuck to my game plan.
“The course is lovely, it’s my first time here and I enjoyed it. I like the way it sets up and it’s in good condition. Considering we had lots of rain yesterday and last night, the course has held up nicely and the greens are fast, especially downwind.
“This is my first year on the main Tour and my main target is to keep my card for next year as I am limited in my starts. Every week is big, but a big week here would be huge.”
Spain’s Alejandro Canizares, who is looking for back-to-back wins following his victory in Morocco last month, had to settle for an opening 72 after a round containing three birdies, one bogey and a double bogey.
The rain delay meant half the 144-strong field were unable to complete their first rounds on Thursday, with play scheduled to resume at 9am local time on Friday.
Doherty’s lead remained in tact, although Welshman Rhys Davies had reached two under par after 12 holes and South African Tjaart van der Walt and Swede Joakim Lagergren were on the same mark early in their rounds.
Former Ryder Cup player David Howell and fellow Englishman David Horsey were in a five-strong group safely in the clubhouse on one under par, but compatriot Simon Dyson retired with a back injury after playing the first two holes in five over.
Scotland’s Chris Doak was among those who suffered a miserable first day, the 36-year-old crashing to a 14-over-par 86 that saw him play one four-hole stretch in 11 over.
On the PGA Tour, three-times major winner Padraig Harrington kept his faint hopes of qualifying for next week’s US Masters alive with an opening 69 in the Shell Houston Open.
Harrington has to win on Sunday to avoid missing out on a trip to Augusta for the first time since 1999 and got off to an encouraging start at the Golf Club of Houston.
The 42-year-old Dubliner started on the 10th and holed from eight feet for an opening birdie before picking up another shot on the par-five 13th.
Harrington dropped a shot on the next after failing to get up and down from a greenside bunker but quickly made amends with birdies on the 17th and 18th to reach the turn in 33. A three-putt bogey on the third halted the former Ryder Cup star’s momentum, but birdies on the fourth and sixth had him high on the leaderboard before a disappointing bogey on the ninth, his final hole.
At three under par, Harrington – whose last victory on a major tour came in the 2008 US PGA Championship – was three shots behind early clubhouse leaders Keegan Bradley and Matt Kuchar.
Bradley, who won the US PGA in 2011, carded six birdies in a flawless 66 that was matched by Kuchar in the group behind, the world number 11 missing from seven feet for birdie on his final hole to take the outright lead.
Bradley’s playing partners Webb Simpson and Phil Mickelson were also off to a good start, the pair returning rounds of 68 to join South African Ernie Els on four under par.
Open champion Mickelson had been a doubt for the event with a pulled muscle which forced him out of the Valero Texas Open last week, but the left-hander showed no ill effects as he carded four birdies and no bogeys.
Els looked set to finish five under but dropped his only shot of the day on the 18th after twice finding sand.
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who can replace the injured Tiger Woods as world number one with a victory in Houston, was five off the lead after a one-under-par 71.