England's Robert Rock was rock-steady to shoot a six-under-par 66 and eclipse some the stars of the game after a brutal opening day at the Maybank Malaysian Open on Thursday.
The Englishman, forced out from last year's event after coming down with chicken pox, grabbed the day's top honour at a steamy Saujana Golf and Country Club to lead by one stroke from Indian prospect SSP Chowrasia, who produced an eye-catching 67 in the US$1.29 million Championship co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour and European Tour.
American left-hander Edward Loar, a two-time winner in Asia, Australian Kane Webber and Argentinean Rafael Echenique were a stroke further back on 68. Former Malaysian Open champions Yeh Wei-tze of Chinese Taipei and Scotsman Alastair Forsyth were amongst those bunched on 69 while two-time winner Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand battled to a 71, matched by reigning Asian number one Jeev Milkha Singh of India.
The tournament's top draws, England's Lee Westwood, winner here in 1997, and 2005 US Open champion Michael Campbell of New Zealand failed to ignite their games with 75s while Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland was one shot better.
Last year, Rock withdrew from the Maybank Malaysian Open after becoming ill on the eve of the tournament and the Englishman, who is winless in Europe, is determined to stick around much longer.
"It was pretty boring being stuck in the hotel room all week," recalled Rock. "Six under is my lowest round since playing the European Tour. My name usually comes off the leaderboard quite quickly once it gets on there so at least it will stay up there overnight," said the 29-year-old Rock.
Rock's nerves was in disarray last night after struggling to find any feel with his putting on the tricky greens at Saujana's Palm course, dubbed "The Cobra" but a new putter, and the experience of his caddie Ryan McGuigan, saw him tame the greens with seven birdies against a lone bogey.
"I was in a panic with my putting last night. I had a new putter today an Odyssey White Steel, similar to my old one but with a little more loft on it. Ryan is really good at reading the grains and suggested that a little more loft might work well on these greens. It was a good choice," he said.
Chowrasia, who grew up at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club where his father is the greenskeeper, bravely carried Asia's charge with a seven-birdie display. The Indian was initially overwhelmed by daunting challenge that the Palm course poses but a chat with compatriot Rahil Gangjee and a good warm-up this morning pushed him to the forefront.
"I told Rahil yesterday that my feel wasn't good. He said to just play it safe and not to attack the course, take your pars and one or two birdies would be good," said Chowrasia.
Instead, some superb shot-making from the Indian, nicknamed "Chip-putt-sia" back home because of his short game prowess, saw him pick up a hatful of birdies, mostly from inside the range of 10 feet. "I putted really well and played solid. It's a tough course. After hitting some balls at the range this morning and making some putts, I had a good feel. I thought to myself today my scoring would be very good."
The 28-year-old enjoyed a memorable rookie season on the Asian Tour in 2006 with three top-10s but endured the heartbreak of being disqualified at the Mercuries Taiwan Masters when he led by three shots as he had not signed his scorecard. "I'll try to win this year. This week? I don't know. I am aiming for one this year," said Chowrasia, who was beaten in a play-off by Jyoti Randhawa for the Hero Honda Indian Open title last October.
The heat and humidity wore the players down, with Loar, who has won the national Opens of Thailand and Korea, saying: "This place, it's all about survival. I played my front nine (back nine) really well but on the back, it was a struggle. I chipped and putted beautifully. I just had to hang in there. I was struggling coming in."
Westwood, one of Europe's stars in their Ryder Cup triumph over the US last year, found water twice and struggled on the greens. "I didn't have many breaks out there. I hit into the water at the fourth hole from the middle of the fairway. I also three putted the second and the fourth (his fourth hole but the 13th on the course), and hit it into the water at seven," said Westwood. "I can't see a line on these greens now and I'm struggling to see a score under par. I don't know how others have got it round in four under. That's amazing," he said.
Like his good friend, Clarke also struggled on the putting surface. "I actually played nicely. I just struggled on the greens. At the moment, it's not going my way, that's to be expected as I've not played a lot," said the Ulsterman, whose wife Heather lost her battle to cancer last year which saw Clarke take time off from the game.
While Westwood failed to find any inspiration upon his return to Saujana, Yeh, the champion in 2000 at Templer Park Golf Club, was delighted to have another crack at the title. "It's good to be back here. When I was first here in 2001, I was the defending champion and I didn't play well. There was a lot of pressure then on me as it was the first time that I was defending a title. I remember we had a strong field that year with Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington being the top players that week.
"The course is so difficult with the rough up this week. Luckily, I didn't miss many fairways," said Yeh, who now plays full-time in Japan and has triumphed twice there.
Leading first round scores
66 - Robert Rock (ENG)
67 - S.S.P. Chowrasia (IND)
68 - Rafael Echenique (ARG), Edward Loar (USA), Kane Webber (AUS)
69 - Yeh Wei-tze (TPE), Ricardo Gonzalez (ARG), Alastair Forsyth (SCO), Mark Foster (ENG), Mikko Ilonen (FIN)
70 - David Bransdon (AUS), Robert-Jan Derksen (NLD), Rahil Gangjee (IND), Chapchai Nirat (THA), Damien Mcgrane (IRL), Soren Kjeldsen (DEN), Angelo Que (PHI), Chinarat Phadungsil (THA), Gerald Rosales (PHI), Alessandro Tadini (ITA)
71 - Ian Garbutt (ENG), Marcus Both (AUS), Stephen Gallacher (SCO), Airil Rizman Zahari (MAS), Anthony Kang (USA), Simon Wakefield (ENG), Thongchai Jaidee (THA), Wang Ter-chang (TPE), Johan Axgren (SWE), Jeev Milkha Singh (IND), Simon Dyson (ENG), Gavin Flint (AUS), Suk Jong-yul (KOR), Cesar Monasterio (ARG), Gary Simpson (AUS)
72 - Prom Meesawat (THA), Terry Pilkadaris (AUS), Mardan Mamat (SIN), Gaurav Ghei (IND), Hendrik Buhrmann (RSA), Jean-Francois Lucquin (FRA), Gary Lockerbie (ENG), Graeme Storm (ENG), Frankie Minoza (PHI), Graeme Mcdowell (IRL), Barry Hume (SCO), Sam Walker (ENG), Marcus Higley (ENG)