Shrugging of any effects of jet lag after a 30-hour round the globe flight to Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, the 2011 Masters champion made a scorching start at the 51st edition of the national Open, draining nine birdies against a sole bogey at Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club to take a one-shot lead over two-time Asian Tour Order of Merit winner Jeev Milka Singh.
Schwartzel’s compatriot and playing partner Louis Oosthuizen was joined by American Jason Knutzon and Jyoti Randhawa of India in third on six-under with the trio of Filipino veteran Antonio Lascuna, Stephen Gallacher of Scotland and Omega Dubai Desert Classic winner Rafael Cabrera-Bello a shot back on 67.
Other notable finishers includes defending champion Matteo Manassero, who battled back from a poor start to card a round of 70, matched by the top-ranked player in the field Martin Kaymer.
Leading the local charge was Maybank ambassador Shaaban Hussin, who posted a confident two-under 70 while Danny Chia, Ben Leong and young amateur Low Khai Jei were level on one-over 73.
Starting on the back nine, Schwartzel made three birdies and a bogey to make the turn on 33 before he struck his approach to the first to within three feet. It sparked a run of five birdies in seven holes for a brilliant inward 31 as Schwartzel looks for his first victory since becoming a Major champion a year ago.
“I played very well today. It has been some time coming now because I have been working really hard for the last couple of months and I haven’t had anything for me. It has been feeling good for a long time but given me nothing but I seemed to put it all together and eight under was a good score for me,” said Schwartzel.
The 28-year-old was pleasantly surprised with his level of freshness and was grateful to the luck of draw which enabled him to tee-off in the relatively more bearable morning weather.
“I felt surprisingly good today. I got a good night’s sleep and woke up this morning before the alarm. The tiredness seems to catch me more in the afternoon than the morning, so it felt pretty good.
“It could have been one or two lower as I missed a couple of chances towards the end there but I’m happy with 64 – I haven’t shot a number like that for a while,” he added.
Milkha, who started from the tenth, began his day with an eagle before bogeying the next but had six unanswered birdies after that including a 15-footer at the 18th. “I’m really happy. It is still an early start but a positive one, so I look forward to the next three days,” shared the three-time European Tour winner.
“[Confidence] is high. I’ve been playing well for a while. It all comes down to putting and I holed a lot of putts. The beauty is that I’m feeling fit. That’s the most important things because I can practise enough. I feel healthy and I think that things are going to better better as the year goes by.
The 41-year-old Indian, who is no stranger to local golf fans having cut his teeth on the domestic TDC Tour in the late 80s had some good words for the West Course layout and Malaysia in general.
“This course is excellent. I think it is a fantastic test of golf. You hit a lot of irons off the tees and it gives you a balanced chance of playing aggressive or conservatively. I have great memories here, having started my professional career in Malaysia. My victory here previously always stays with me and coming back to Malaysia is always a great feeling. I have positive vibes coming back here. I love the country and the people,” he said.
Displaying a deep reserve of resilience, Oosthuizen who was narrowly beaten to the Green Jacket at The Masters Tournament by Bubba Watson on Sunday, bounced back with a round of six birdies and an eagle with his only blemish of the day coming on the first.
“This morning, I felt quite good. I knew the swing was still good. It was just adapting to the weather and the green speed. But I putted beautifully today and hope to keep it going for the week,” said the 2010 Open Championship winner.
Oosthuizen admitted that the pairing with his long-time mate Schwartzel allowed the former Eisenhower Trophy pair to ride on each other’s good vibe. “It was long haul getting here. It think me and Charl knew the first round, concentration level won’t be great. But we did well.”
The 29-year-old was equally upbeat about his chances this week after the heartache of missing out on what would have been a second Major title to his name last week. “Any tournament you finish well, you always get confidence out of it. I’ve been playing well for quite a while now and came in here trying to win this event,” he added.
Leading first round scores
64 – Charl Schwartzel (RSA).
65 – Jeev Milkha Singh (IND).
66 – Jason Knutzon (USA), Louis Oosthuizen (RSA), Jyoti Randhawa (IND).
67 – Antonio Lascuna (PHI), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (ESP), Stephen Gallacher (SCO).
68 – Soren Kjeldsen (DEN), Joonas GranbergANBERG (FIN), Romain Wattel (FRA), Prom Meesawat (THA), Ricardo Gonzalez (ARG), Gaurav Ghei (IND).
69 – Marcel Siem (GER), Pablo Larrazabal (ESP), Lorenzo Gagli (ITA), Richard Green (AUS), Scott Jamieson (SCO), Shiv Kapur (IND), Anthony Kang (USA), Julien Quesne (FRA), Simon Dyson (ENG), Branden Grace (RSA), Lee Sung (KOR), Lin Wen-tang (TPE), Danny Willett (ENG), Panuphol Pittayarat (THA).