Robert Karlsson has the chance to complete consecutive wire-to-wire victories in the Omega European Masters – but will have to hold off Ernie Els to do so.
Karlsson carded a first round 65, six under par, at Crans-sur-Sierre to share the lead with world number two Els, one shot ahead of 49-year-old duo Mark McNulty and Eduardo Romero, Lancashire’s Paul Eales, Norway’s Henrik Bjornstad and France’s Marc Farry.
That was the same score he started with 12 months ago on his way to a four-shot victory and fifth European Tour title, and a repeat on Sunday would go some way to make up for the disappointment of last week.
Karlsson led by two shots going into the final round of the BMW International Open in Munich but struggled to a closing 74 and share of eighth place as Lee Westwood claimed his first win in almost three years.
But the 6ft 5in Swede is benefiting from a more laid-back approach and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere high up in the Swiss Alps.
“Even if you are two over par when you reach the seventh tee you get a big smile on your face,” said Karlsson, who was referring to the spectacular views across to the Matterhorn but could also have been meant the eagle two he secured by driving the green on the short par four and holing from 30 feet.
“It’s easy to relax and most players possibly enjoy this tournament more than any on tour. The driving range is so bad it means you practice less.
“This is my seventh tournament in a row, I’ve never done more than four before, and it has forced me to practice less and enjoy it more.
“I’d like to do that anyway because after 13 years you hope you can play the game decently.”
This week sees the start of the Ryder Cup qualifying process and Karlsson would love to claim the £185,000 first prize and take a big step to securing his place in the team after missing out by one place in 1999.
“If I can manage to get close again sooner or later it’s going to be my turn,” added Karlsson, who was overlooked for a wild card by Mark James four years ago.
“But it’s a different system this year so I don’t think anyone really knows how it’s going to work out.”
That is no concern for Els of course, although he will be playing in the Ryder Cup-style Presidents Cup between America and a Rest of the World side in South Africa in November.
Els has won five times already this season and currently tops the Order of Merit, but admitted his hectic schedule was catching up with him.
The 33-year-old won twice in Hawaii in February, then finished second in a tournament in Singapore, won twice more in Australia before flying back to California for the World Matchplay and then back to Dubai for the Desert Classic.
“I think I’ll change my schedule next year,” said Els after a round of one bogey and seven birdies, one of which was set up by a two iron approach from 275 yards on the 632-yard par five ninth.
“By the end of the year I’ll have played 27 or 28 and I’ll probably cut back a bit. I can feel my energy is not quite the same as it has been and that’s why I’ve been coming out a bit later to tournaments.
“There is a little bit of energy that goes after the majors have finished as well but I’ve got two weeks off after this and I want to finish on a high.”
Between them McNulty and Romero have more than 40 years experience on the European Tour and are looking forward to the lucrative US Seniors Tour. McNulty reaches the qualifying age of 50 next month and Romero next July.
But they are both still competitive with the young guns and would become the oldest ever winner on tour, surpassing Des Smyth’s record of 48 years and 34 days, if they were to triumph on Sunday.
Romero was disappointed to discover the local restaurant in which he ate every night on his way to victory in 2000 has changed hands and will not re-open until December, but enjoyed driving it 50 yards past playing partner Colin Montgomerie.
“I am 50 next year but I play like a 20-year-old,” said the Argentinian.
“I hit the ball fantastically long with the same swing, maybe it’s the new balls.
“I hit it 365 yards at the ninth and said to Monty, ’Not bad for an old man’.”
Montgomerie had to settle for a one under par 70, the Scot not alone in struggling to get to grips with the tricky greens which were redesigned by Seve Ballesteros in 1999.
“You can’t complain because the course is under snow for most of the year,” explained England’s Paul Casey, twice a winner on tour this season, after his 68.
“They are not perfect, but combined with Seve’s redesign they are very very difficult.”