Robert Rock and Laurie Canter led a strong English challenge on a low-scoring first day of the Italian Open.
Rock and Canter both fired eight-under 63s to share the lead with Richard Sterne, with Danny Willett making a welcome return to form as he opened with a 65 to join fellow Englishmen Ross Fisher, Matt Wallace and Charlie Ford in the pack of leading chasers.
Ryder Cup team-mates Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick were one stroke further adrift on five under along with last week’s BMW PGA champion and home favourite Francesco Molinari on a day in which a remarkable 111 of the 156-strong field broke the par of 71 in ideal conditions at Gardagolf Country Club.
Rock, who had former European Tour pro and multiple Challenge Tour winner Sam Walker on his bag, staged an excellent recovery from a dropped shot at the second, as he made three birdies and an eagle at the seventh to turn in 31 before picking up four more shots on the inward half to set the early clubhouse target.
Ross Fisher's 65th and final shot of his opening round at the Italian Open finds the hole from 104 yards for a spectacular eagle
The 41-year-old was soon joined by Canter, who carded six birdies and also eagled the seventh as he enjoyed a bogey-free round, while Sterne birdied his final three holes late in the day to make it a three-way tie at the top overnight.
Fisher produced a stirring finish to his round when he followed birdies at seven and eight with a stunning eagle at the ninth, holing out from 104 yards with his 65th and final shot of the day.
Willett has made the cut only twice in his seven starts since the turn of the year and has slumped to 462nd in the world rankings from being in the top-10 following his memorable Masters victory barely two years ago, but he showed positive signs of a return to form with a morale-boosting six-birdie opener that was also without any blemishes.
Two of his European team-mates from Hazeltine, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Thomas Pieters, were also six under for the day, while Westwood appeared on course to challenge for the clubhouse lead when he reeled off four consecutive birdies early in his round.
He slipped back with a pair of bogeys, but he recovered to pick up three shots in four holes to get back to five under on a course where he tied for sixth in the event in 1997, although he could not remember his performance of 21 years ago when speaking to Sky Sports reporter Tim Barter afterwards.
“I was about to say it’s a good first round considering I’ve only seen the course once in the pro-am yesterday and didn’t have a practice round,” said a bemused Westwood as he tried to recall his first visit to Gardagolf. “It was 21 years ago!”
Ian Poulter knew he would be close to a hole-in-one after flushing his tee shot to the 10th at the Italian Open, and he was right!
Two-time winner Molinari and fellow Wentworth champion Matteo Manassero led the hopes of the home nation in the group on five under which also included a resurgent Graeme McDowell and Gleneagles Ryder Cup star Jamie Donaldson, with Ian Poulter, Chris Wood and Eddie Pepperell among 10 Englishman to fire 67s.
European No 1 Tommy Fleetwood had a mixed day as he carded six birdies against three bogeys in a 68, but defending champion Tyrrell Hatton will need to go low on Friday to avoid a weekend off after a woeful finish to his round.
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Hatton got off to a flying start with birdies at each of the first three holes, and he remained three under for the day until he bogeyed the 17th and then scrapped his way to an ugly triple-bogey seven at the last as he plummeted to one over par.