Horne leads by one in Wales

It was a good day for two former Ryder Cup stars at Celtic Manor on Thursday, though South African Keith Horne leads the way.

It was a good day for two former Ryder Cup stars at Celtic Manor on Thursday, though South African Keith Horne leads the way.

Paired together for their opening round in the Saab Wales Open, Graeme McDowell and Peter Hanson both marked their return to the venue of their famous Ryder Cup victory last year with solid rounds that has them both in contention.

McDowell, the defending champion, carded a four-under-par 67 that leaves him three shots adrift of leader Keith Horne. It was a full five shots better than his first round at this event last year. Hanson, meanwhile, shot a six-under-par 65 that leaves him only one shot off the lead.

McDowell’s round included a fantastic 30-foot eagle putt on the 15th, though he could only manage par on the hole with which he is most associated – the 16th, scene of the most significant birdie putt the Northern Irishman has ever made.

“It’s a tough second shot past my statue there,” he joked.

“I hit it to about 20 feet and thought I made it, but I guess I’ve used all my magic up on that green.”

Overall, McDowell was pleased with his round, and feeling good about his game as he gears up for his all important defence of his US Open title later this month.

“It’s all simmering nicely. I need to get into the mix this weekend and get the old juices flowing again.”

Just like last year, McDowell is using this event as final preparation for the US Open, and he’ll be hoping that he once again closes with rounds of 63 and 64 to take the title.

“I’ve definitely got three or four days of chilling out planned next week – maybe go and wear out a groove in my mum’s couch in Portrush.

“I’m going to fly to Orlando Thursday and Pete (coach Pete Cowen) is coming in Friday.”

Hanson is also heading to Washington for the year’s second major, and by the skin of his teeth – the top 50 in the rankings automatically qualify and the Swede was 50th by 0.01 ranking points over Australian Aaron Baddeley. McDowell had the same situation last year, by 0.05 ranking points.

Hanson outscored Horne in the birdie department eight to seven, but added two bogeys at the eight and 13th holes to finish the day in second.

Leader Horne, ranked 289th in the world, only turned professional when he was 25, and was fortunate to hang onto his European Tour card last year. The South African came home in five under 30, but was quick to point out that one of his shots, when bunkered off the tee at the 15th, was not a shank.

“I had about 40 yards and I just couldn’t get a sand wedge or wedge at it to get it that far, so I hit a nine-iron and it just came out straight right.

“Didn’t work – but not a shank!”

Elsewhere, the two other Ryder Cup champions in attendance, Ross Fisher and Miguel Angel Jimenez, had rounds of 71 and 73 respectively. Fisher, currently ranked 52nd, needs a good showing this week in order to get back into the top 50 and qualify for the US Open.

Jimenez was paired with captain Colin Montgomerie, but the Scot could not follow up his excellent top-10 finish at Wentworth last week. He found the water twice on the way to a 77.

English duo Steve Webster and Paul Broadhurst are tied for third with Spain’s Alvaro Velasco, one shot behind Hanson and two behind Horne.