Browne, Lawrie sparkle in the sun

IRELAND’S “second division” of European Tour members had their day in the sun at San Roque yesterday.

Temperatures in the high 70s on the opening day of the Spanish Open held no fears for Dubliners Stephen Browne and Peter Lawrie, both of whom shot five under par rounds of 67, while David Higgins finished on 70.

On the debit side, Damien McGrane, three under after 10, took a double bogey seven at the 11th and limped home in 73.

Michael Hoey was a stroke more.

In truth, the Perry Dye/Seve Ballesteros-designed new course at this magnificent venue, in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar and within two good driver shots of its more illustrious neighbour, Valderrama, was little more than a pushover for the professionals, with McGrane gloomily predicting that the cut could come at five under.

Whereas McGrane admitted to being tired and lacking in desire after a strenuous campaign of late, a delighted Lawrie quipped that “it must be the water in Spain” that is enabling him to do so well in the championship after his runner-up spot in 2004 and a share of third place last year.

Whatever it is, his game has been in good shape of late.

Thirteenth spot in China last week bumped him up to 51st in the order of merit with €134,422 and yesterday’s 67 puts him in ideal position to challenge for the kind of cheque that would ease concerns he may have about his Tour card for 2007, with most of the season still to come.

“I began at the 10th, and while I made no mistakes, I also failed to capitalise on some chances,” said the 32 year-old Dubliner.

“Still, four under going out was good going and I picked up another shot at the second (his 11th) with a wedge to five feet.

“I bogeyed two of the next three before coming back with birdies at 7 and the short 8th, where I hit a very satisfying 3 iron to four feet.

“I didn’t get back to Dublin from China until Monday night, just in time to say hello to my wife Philippa and seven-month-old daughter Jessica, before dashing out here in time for Wednesday’s pro-am. I’m a bit tired and just trying to hide it.”

Stephen Browne, also 32, has bittersweet memories of San Roque. It was here two years ago that he earned his card at the Tour School but a wrist injury in the same exercise last November meant he was out of contention after eight holes of the first round.

Browne is seeking his first euro of this year’s Tour and has certainly made the right kind of start in his attempt to depart with a large chunk of the €1.65m prize fund.

He also started at the tenth and picked up three birdies to turn in 33. Two more followed in a blemish-free 67, and now Browne is hell-bent on capitalising on this situation.

“I’ve been struggling with a knee injury for most of this year but after a three-week rest it’s about 80% and I felt good out there today,” Browne reported.

“It happened first in China but I was able to hobble through the first round in 65 before playing poorly in the second and missed the cut by a shot. The hills in Madeira got to me and I managed only six holes in Portugal. I had to play in those events because the re-rank was looming.”

Even at five under, Lawrie and Browne know they can ill afford any slips today, given the low scoring.

David Higgins on two under certainly has his work cut out to be around for the weekend although he, too, has been striking the ball well and had good reason to be disappointed at failing to do better than 70 yesterday.

He was disappointed that he couldn’t build more decisively on birdies at each of the first two holes and while he also picked up further birdies at the sixth, tenth and 17th, they were offset by bogeys at the third, eighth and 13th. Higgins will need greater consistency if he is to survive into the weekend.

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