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Early starter Pulkkanen sets the pace thanks to his red-hot putter

 

Fast start: Tapio Pulkkanen the early leader in Italy
Fast start: Tapio Pulkkanen the early leader in Italy

By Phil Casey

Finland's Tapio Pulkkanen claimed a slender lead in the opening round of the Italian Open after setting a target which proved too hot to handle.

Out in the first group from the 10th tee at 7.30am, Pulkkanen birdied five of his first eight holes and picked up further shots on the fifth and sixth to card a seven-under-par 64.

That gave the 29-year-old a one-shot lead over Slovakia's Rory Sabbatini, with world number five Justin Rose part of a five-strong group a shot further back on five under.

Graeme McDowell made a steady start carding a two-under-par 69.

"My putter was really hot today," Pulkkanen admitted.

"I made a lot of putts, especially on my front nine. I made a lot of long putts. It was perfect greens, so easy to make them.

"I didn't feel so comfortable with my warm-up today. It was a little dark on the range and I didn't hit it well but it was a super score, so I'm really happy."

Sabbatini was born in South Africa but now represents Slovakia, the home country of his wife and stepson.

That means he is eligible to represent Europe in the Ryder Cup and the 43-year-old is on the radar of Europe captain Padraig Harrington.

"I think I've just got to continue to try and do what I did today, which is keep the ball in play," said Sabbatini, who has won six times on the PGA Tour. Obviously this is a golf course that I think accuracy is of prime importance out here.

"Putting it in play, and then continue to hit greens and I think if you get it on the greens in regulation, minimise the stress, and we'll see what happens."

Rose was level par after 10 holes at Olgiata Golf Club but birdied five of the next seven to move ominously into contention for his second win of the season.

"I stayed just about patient enough on the front nine," the Olympic champion said. "I had a tough run from the second to the sixth, didn't play very well at all and rode the storm a little bit before resetting my goals.

"The greens looked like they were getting bumpy but still holding their line really well, which is great out there."

Home favourite Francesco Molinari is seven shots off the pace after struggling to a level-par 71, with his successor as Open champion, Shane Lowry, a further stroke adrift.

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