Nick Faldo has not held the outright lead in a European Tour event since the third round here in Switzerland five years ago. He went on to finish sixth but for most of the afternoon yesterday his 66 put the six-times major champion proudly at the top of the leaderboard at the European Masters.
It was only at the end of the day that Faldo was joined on five under by Paul Lawrie and Mathias Gronberg, and all three were overhauled by the 65 of Robert Karlsson. The tall Swede, who recorded birdies on five of his last seven holes, finished second here in 1997, scoring a 64 in the process, a year before Seve Ballesteros was asked to redesign the greens.
His handiwork was not appreciated by his fellow professionals then and familiarity over the last few years has not increased their fondness for what amounts to upturned saucers, and none too large at that. "They are unfair," Karlsson said. "Half a dozen times I pitched the ball close to the pin and finished off the green. They should have left them as they were. It was fun. The course is easy but just let the boys enjoy it." Retief Goosen deplored the lack of variety of different challenges on the greens and Ernie Els agreed. "The design and the condition of them are not really up to tour standard," said the Open champion.
Faldo, who has proved a more successful course designer than Ballesteros, was not going to be drawn. "They are the finest cup cakes you will find in Crans," he joked. This is one week where Faldo, whose wife is Swiss, takes off his blinkers and admires the scenery rather than the course. It worked yesterday as he did not drop a shot, collected three birdies and an eagle at the first (his 10th) where he hit a three-iron to 10 feet.
"I'll take it step by step," said Faldo, who has not won for five years. "I am trying to be very disciplined. It is good to feel a bit of pressure because that's how you learn about your swing."
Faldo has talked freely about his golfing renaissance this season but admitted yesterday that after The Open at Lytham last year he had to be persuaded to carry on by family and friends. "I was arguing with people that I should quit," he said. "I was asking them to come up with a reason why I should carry on rather than go and build courses and have a bit of fun.
"They picked me up off the floor. After you have a bit of time to think about it, you come to your senses. I am not a giver-upper, even if I'm down low." Such is his enthusiasm now Faldo hopes not to end his season until the World Cup in Mexico in December where he could be playing with Justin Rose.
Craig Stadler, the former Masters champion, returned a level-par 71, which was beaten by his 22-year-old son Kevin, who had a 70. Kevin is definitely his father's son, solid of build, a beard and many of the same fidgeting mannerisms. He only turned professional last week prior to winning the Colorado State Open – with Craig as his caddie.
Kevin is heading to the US Qualifying School but otherwise his father is unaware of his ambitions in the game. "We haven't really talked," said Craig. "I am glad he did better than me today. I got it round in 71 somehow but it wasn't pretty." Lee Westwood also had a 71, while Phillip Price, one of his playing partners, scored 69. The Ryder Cup men were upstaged by their Australian companion Stephen Leaney, who chipped in at the last for a 68.
EUROPEAN MASTERS (Crans-sur-Sierre, Swit) Leading first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 65 R Karlsson (Swe); 66 N Faldo, P Lawrie, M Gronberg (Swe); 67 C Pettersson (Swe), M A Jimenez (Sp), D Park, A Cejka (Ger), B Rumford (Aus); 68 K Eriksson (Swe), E Canonica (Ita), M Foster, F Andersson (Swe), B Davis, P Casey, S Leaney (Aus), G Orr; 69 O Karlsson (Swe), C Pottier (Fr), P Sjoland (Swe), T Levet (Fr), J Donaldson, P Price, H Bjornstad (Nor), T Bjorn (Den), S Dyson; 70 D Carter, G Brand Jnr, P Hanson (Swe), E Els (SA), T Immelman (SA), S Little, K Stadler (US), S Luna (Sp), I Garbutt, M Farry (Fr), M Chatelain (Swit), R-J Derksen (Neth), S Gardiner (Aus), J Hugo (SA), B Lane, C Rodiles (Sp), R Goosen (SA), I Poulter, A Coltart, D Drysdale, R Jacquelin (Fr), P Fowler (Aus); 71 J M Singh (Ind), E Romero (Arg), M Campbell (NZ), S Lyle, C Stadler (US), G Fox, H Nystrom (Swe), D Howell, M Lundberg (Swe), L Westwood, A Bossert (Swit), S Gallacher, M Siem (Ger); 72 F Valera (Sp), C Rocca (It), M McNulty (Zim), *J Clement (Swit), R Chapman, M Olander (Swe), M James, M Cort, R Coles, A Marshall, *R De Sousa (Swit), G Clark, M Warren, D Edlund (Swe), M P Atlevi (Swe), S Hansen (Den), J Moseley (Aus), M Brier (Aut), F Jacobson (Swe), A Wall, C Hanell (Swe), I Garrido (Sp), G Rojas (Arg), C Gane, S Delagrange (Fr) Selected: 73 B Dredge, M Mackenzie, G Storm, M Roe, R Bland, M Davis, R Rafferty, S Walker. 74 P Golding, G Owen, G Emerson, J Robinson, J Lomas, M Pilkington, M Mouland, D Lee, S Dodd. *denotes amateur