DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano birdied his last three holes for a 6-under 66 at the Qatar Masters, overcoming wind and blowing sand to lead John Daly by a shot after the first round on Thursday.
Daly (67) was followed by K.J. Choi (68) and Jason Day (68). Six players, including 1999 British Open champion Paul Lawrie and Nicolas Colsaerts, were three shots off the pace.
Martin Kaymer (71) and Sergio Garcia (72) were in contention, but about two-thirds of the field shot over par, including defending champion Thomas Bjorn (79).
“It just happened,'' Fernandez-Castano said with a smile. “It was such a difficult day that you didn't have any expectation going out there. Every shot was difficult. Every shot, you had to be 100 percent focused. That is probably what kept me in the game.''
The Spaniard, winner of five European Tour titles, holed several putts of more than 20 feet on his way to nine birdies to go along with three bogeys.
He played his best golf on the back nine, bouncing back from a bogey on 13 to make four birdies on the final five holes.
“I think the key was holing the putt on 16th,'' Fernandez-Castano said. “I hit the green with my 3 wood. The first putt was very poor, left it 3 meters (10 feet) short of the hole and managed to hole that one. You never know, maybe I missed that one and your momentum disappears.
“But I holed that one and hit a lovely shot on the next, holed the putt and then had a lovely drive on the last … I had a tricky bunker shot and holed the last putt.''
Daly benefited from milder conditions in the morning when gusts of up to 22 mph died down for several holes. The two-time major winner shot bogey-free golf, including five birdies.
Opening his season in Doha, he wants to get back on track after struggling at the end of 2011, the nadir being when he quit the Australian Open in November after hitting seven balls into water.
“It was brutal. I'm pretty shocked myself shooting 5 under,'' said Daly, sporting a buzz cut and bright red and black checkered pants.
“It was great start,'' he added. “It was one of the best rounds I ever played. I mean that. That is just how hard the golf course is playing.''
Daly, who won the 1995 British Open in wind and rain, said he often thrives in tough conditions like those endured on Thursday, adding that he was helped by consistent driving and the way he “managed the course.''
“I had a lot of chances to at least hit the greens and I can't say it's from practicing a lot because I took a lot of time off which I pretty much needed,'' Daly said. “I love the way I putted. I've always been kind of decent in the wind. I'm a streaky putter so you can sometimes hit some bad putts and get away with it.''
Some players said they have faced windier conditions, especially in England and Scotland. But what made the Doha course so challenging was the strong winds were kicking up sand from the surrounding desert.
Balls were difficult to track off the tee because of lower visibility and sand was getting into their hair, eyes and everything else.
“I know what wiener schnitzel feels like, because I'm pan-fried,'' Fernandez-Castano joked.
Lee Westwood, who missed the cut last year, said he was just happy to break par.
“71 felt like a good score,'' Westwood tweeted. “Left a few out there but have a very smooth completion on the plus side! Sandblasted!''
Several big names fared worse and were in danger of missing the cut, including Ryder Cup player Ross Fisher, who finished with a 9-over 81, Bjorn at 7 over and Robert Karlsson, who shot 78.
Choi (68) said the key to his bogey-free round was the way he and caddie Steve Underwood were able to predict the gusts.
“To play bogey-free golf is fantastic,'' said Choi, who tied for 48th in Abu Dhabi last week.
“We were comfortable reading the wind together. We had great teamwork today and that set the pace and helped me gain confidence.''