Marc Warren stumbled to his worst score for more than two years as South African Jaco Van Zyl led the way in a low-scoring opening round but has two former world No 1s, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, prowling near the top of the leaderboard in the Turkish Airlines Open.
On a day when Van Zyl, a 36-year-old from Johannesburg, signed for his lowest-ever European Tour round – an 11-under-par 61 – Westwood also took advantage of a toothless Montgomerie Maxx Royal course in Belek to sit as his closest challenger on 63, with McIlroy handily placed, too, after his 67.
My driving was poor, my short game and my putting were poorMarc Warren
Despite being short on practice on this particular course compared to everyone else after becoming the last man into the £4.6 million event, on-form David Drysdale is the leading Scot, sitting joint-17th on 69, two ahead of Stephen Gallacher and four in front of Richie Ramsay on his return from a five-week lay-off due to an eye infection.
For Warren, though, it was a first real off-day in a long time as the Scottish No 1 was left sitting last in the 78-man field after a seven-over-par 79 – his worst score since he crashed out of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield following a second-round 80.
“There wasn’t a lot to hang my hat on out there,” admitted the 35-year-old as he manfully faced up to the two Scottish scribes attending the opening event in the European Tour’s lucrative Final Series on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
“My driving was poor, my short game was and my putting was poor. But it happens and hopefully it can only get better.”
Sitting 18th in the Race to Dubai and hoping to use the final four events to climb into the world’s top 50 before the end of the year so that he can secure a first Masters invitation next April, Warren let six shots fritter away on a damaging three-hole run from the sixth after starting at the tenth.
Two of his tee shots in that stretch found water.
“I played poorly on Tuesday but practised a bit yesterday and thought it was okay,” he added.
“There’s no cut here, of course, and hopefully I can play myself into some decent form in the rest of the event as this is the time of the year you want to be playing well. Both in the Race to Dubai and the world rankings, this is an exciting and hugely important time of the year.”
A prolific winner on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour but still trying to make the breakthrough on the European Tour, Van Zyl racked up an eagle and nine birdies, yet it was the starts by Westwood and McIlroy that were most eye-catching as they both produced encouraging performances.
The Englishman, whose win in the Asian Tour’s Indonesian Masters was the rare ray of sunlight in a disappointing year on the course and a difficult one off it due to him splitting up from his Scottish wife, Laurae, bagged eight birdies in a flawless effort, which was all the more impressive given that he was only one-under for the par-5s compared to compatriot, Chris Wood, covering those holes in five-under, helped by an eagle at the fourth.
“All in all, it was a good round of golf,” declared Westwood after signing for his best score since the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Championship at Akron last August, an effort that effectively secured his Ryder Cup wild-card at Gleneagles.
“I aimed at the flag a lot and could have holed two or three shots with my irons out there.” Sitting 46th in the world rankings, he added: “I haven’t played very well this year, so a good finish will certainly give me confidence for next year, when I want to be better.”
Meanwhile McIlroy, the Race to Dubai leader and world No 3, made five birdies, singled out a par save at the 18th – his ninth – as the key moment in his round, especially as it involved him having to play left-handed from the base of a tree following a pulled drive. “That gave me some momentum going into the front nine,” he admitted afterwards, having followed his sideways recovery by holing from close to ten feet.
“I hit a lot of quality shots on the front nine and gave myself a lot of looks and holed some putts, including one at the third that was probably the longest one I’ve holed in four months,” he added, smiling at that particular success.
Frustrated by slow play, Drysdale dropped shots at the seventh and eighth as he lost his concentration before recovering to come home in 33, four-under.
“It’s an okay start and one I’d have taken – but I’m eight behind,” he said in admiration of Van Zyl’s sparkling effort in the sunshine.