South Africa’s George Coetzee is just one behind a group of five leaders after firing a 65 in round one of the Italian Open.
Defending champion Francesco Molinari was in a group of leaders after delighting home fans with an opening 64.
Huge crowds headed to Golf Club Milano on Thursday morning to witness the start of Molinari’s title defence and they were treated to a phenomenal display, with the four-time European Tour winner carding nine birdies and two bogeys to get to seven-under-par on a day of low scoring.
Fellow early starters Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Jamie Donaldson and Alexander Björk were also in the clubhouse on seven-under, while England’s Eddie Pepperell joined them in the afternoon.
Coetzee and Byeong Hun An were another shot further back on six-under, while world No 15 Alex Noren and Englishman Chris Paisley were in a tie for seventh on five-under.
Starting at the tenth, Molinari followed up a gain at the 11th with a hat-trick of birdies from the 14th, including a brilliant 20-foot putt at the 16th.
The Italian finished his front nine in style, chipping in for a birdie at the 18th to get to five-under before picking up further shots at the first and second to grab a share of the lead.
A dropped shot at the third threatened to derail his challenge, but after pulling off two tremendous par saves at the fourth and fifth, he fired another birdie at the sixth to return to seven-under.
Home favourite Molinari dropped his second shot of the day at the eighth when he failed to get out of the rough next to the green at the first attempt.
But he bounced back with a closing birdie from close range to rejoin the group at the top of the leaderboard.
After his first round, Molinari said: ‘Obviously it was another good day. I started pretty much where I left off last year, so it was great.
‘It’s great to see the crowds. I think there’s a nice buzz around the place and I’m happy and proud to be part of it.’
Coetzee’s day started with a bogey, but birdies at the fifth and seventh helped him move under par before an eagle on the ninth saw him turn in 33. The now-slimmer South African started the back nine with three consecutive pars before going birdie birdie to move to five-under for the round.
He then got within one of the leaders with a birdie – his 5th of the day – on the 17th, and a well-struck iron from the rough on 18 saw him set up a mid-range putt for birdie and a share of the lead. Coetzee’s putt did everything but drop as it rolled on the edge of the cup and stayed out to see him tap in for a par and a 65.
Next best is Brandon Stone, who shot 67 on Thursday. The young star started with two consecutive birdies and turned in three-under. He moved to -4 on the 14th after getting back the drop at the previous hole and finished with four pars in a row.
The eight remaining South Africans all broke par in the opening round.
Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images