Italian teenager Matteo Manassero shrugged off a lean spell to fire a bogey-free 66 in the first round of the French Open at Le Golf National outside Versailles on Thursday.
That left him in a three-way tie for second place, just one stroke behind surprise first-round leader Christian Nilsson of Sweden.
Level with Manassero on 66 were England’s Gary Boyd and in-form Thai veteran Thongchai Jaidee.
A stroke further back came David Lynn of England, Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Federico Colombo of Italy.
Manassero, a 19-year-old prodigy from Verona, has been tipped to go far since he won the Silver Medal as top amateur in The Open in 2009 at Turnberry, and tour wins quickly followed in the 2010 Castello Masters and the Malaysian Open in April last year.
Since then he has failed to add to his tournament win haul and has struggled for scores in his last four tournaments, in which his best finish was 28th at the Wales Open.
However, perfect early playing conditions on the Albatross course at Le Golf National, the host venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup, were to his liking and he made an early statement with his five-under round.
“Of late, I’ve been quiet,” he said. “I started the year really well with five top-10s and then the last few events I was playing well, but still couldn’t score. But this [round] gives me confidence for doing a good week here.”
“It was the best round you could have because on this golf course you can’t stay too nervous or too tense, because if you don’t play well, this course makes you think about all of the mistakes that you can make,” Manassero added.
First-round leader Nilsson was another who has struggled of late, with eight missed cuts in 14 starts this year leaving him in 156th place in the Race to Dubai European Tour money list.
He believes that a good dose of patience and some dedicated practice are starting to pay dividends.
“It’s been a struggle this year for me so far, so I really needed this score today and especially on this tough course. It’s good for my confidence and really, really helps,” Nilsson said.
“In the beginning of the year, my long game was pretty bad and my short game has been all right all year. These last few weeks, the long game has improved and the putting seems to be working as well. So today everything clicked,” he added.
It was the 10th straight year that the French Open has been held at Le Golf National, the purpose-built headquarters of the French Golf Federation, and there was a double attraction for players this year — to gain experience on the future Ryder Cup course and to find form ahead of The Open at Royal Lytham in two weeks.
World No. 2 Lee Westwood, the top-ranking player in the field, bounced back from being four-over through six holes to come in with a 70, while fellow Englishman Justin Rose, ranked ninth, carded a level-par 71.
Defending champion Frenchman Thomas Levet, who broke his leg while jumping into the greenside lake at the 18th hole last year to celebrate his win, struggled to a 72, coming in among the late starters who had to finish in heavy rain.