Fernandez-Castano earns reward for long journey home
David Higgins just one shot off the lead in Valencia
Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal tees off at the 18th during the first round of the Open de Espana at Parador de El Saler in Valencia, Spain. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano was rewarded for his commitment to the Spanish Open with a first round of 69 to lie just one shot off the lead in Valencia.
Fernandez-Castano travelled to El Saler immediately after competing in the Masters at Augusta, where he was disappointed to finish 20th after being in contention for much of the week.
The 32-year-old admitted he would not be playing if any tournament other than his national Open had been on the schedule, the only European Tour event in Spain in 2013 due to the financial crisis.
But his effort was rewarded with a round containing four birdies and just one bogey that was good enough for a share of fourth place behind leaders Felipe Aguilar of Chile, France’s Gary Stal and Denmark’s Morten Orum Madsen.
“I played some steady golf and had a couple of lucky breaks too,” said Fernandez-Castano, who has not finished better than 30th in his last five appearances in the event.
“I holed some nice putts even though the greens were not the best this afternoon so overall I think it’s a very good start for the week.”
Playing partner Miguel Angel Jimenez failed to record a single birdie in his round of 76, but was just pleased to be back playing for the first time since suffering a broken leg while skiing in December last year.
“It’s very nice to be back, it’s been a long time away from competition,” the 49-year-old said. “I was looking forward to playing this tournament and I recovered as quick as I can and am very pleased to be here.
“I hit some good shots and some poor shots, it was not brilliant and I could not hole any putts. The most difficult thing is to get the rhythm of competition and get your mind focused. My leg is fine, it’s about the feeling inside.”
Joint leader Aguilar set the early clubhouse target with a four-under 68 and was joined at the top of the leaderboard by Stal and Madsen, with Ireland’s David Higgins and Scotland’s Craig Lee among those alongside Fernandez-Castano on three under.
Aguilar, who has won more than 30 tournaments in Chile but has just one European Tour title to his name, said: “Four under is a good score anywhere so I am quite happy with it.
“I took a couple of weeks off which has been good for me because I was really tired after the beginning of the season. I played really well in the desert (finishing ninth in Qatar and third in Dubai) so I think my card is secure for next year.
“Now I am playing to finish high in the Race to Dubai and for world ranking points. It’s always a lot easier when you start very well.”
Pre-tournament favourite Sergio Garcia, joint eighth in the Masters, had to settle for a level-par 72 to finish alongside former world number three Paul Casey.
“It was a flat round, I played passably, neither very well nor very poorly,” Garcia said. “I had a decent start and should have shot three or four under with no wind, but I made a lousy double bogey on the fourth (hitting his tee shot into the trees and then pitching into a bunker). After that I found myself fighting to save pars instead of making birdies.”
Defending champion Francesco Molinari, struggling with a back injury which forced him to miss the pre-tournament pro-am, started with a triple-bogey seven and was six over after 11 holes, but played the last seven holes in three under to card a 75.
Dubliner Peter Lawrie had two bogeys in his final three homes but still managed to post a one-under-par 71 thanks to four birdies in his opening round.
Shane Lowry struggled on his return from America, carding seven bogeys and a double bogey in a 78, while Northern Ireland amateur struggled to an 81.