Martin Kaymer's attempt to end Tiger Woods' five-year reign as the world's top-ranked golfer got off to a slow start at the Andalucia Masters on Thursday.
The German needs to win the European Tour tournament, or finish in second place in a tie with no more than one other player, but could only manage an opening round of 72, leaving him five shots adrift of leader Pablo Larazabal.
Larazabal of Spain broke two shots clear of the field with birdies at the 16th and 17th holes after a bogey-free round, with Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell and Ireland's Damien McGrane sharing second place after 68s.
Kaymer said before the tournament his priority was winning Europe's second Race to Dubai money list, but that could be in jeopardy after McDowell's strong opening round.
The Northern Irishman currently lies second in the table, about $1.5 milion behind Kaymer, but if the U.S. Open champion could win on Sunday, the gap would close with four big-money events still to be played.
McDowell was Kaymer's playing partner on Thursday as the German missed a putt from 18 inches on the 11th green, drove into a bunker at the next hole and then drove into trees at the 13th.
However, McDowell, whose own 68 included three birdies and no bogeys, said afterwards that it was too early to write off Kaymer's chances of winning his fourth straight strokeplay tournament.
"Martin is never very far away from playing well," he said. "And although he hit a few loose shots he generally hung in pretty well.
"But now I need to stay ahead of him, to win some tournaments and has some strong finishes to have any opportunity of winning the Race to Dubai. I think it is fair to say we are going to be seeing a lot of each other in the next few weeks."
McDowell might not be the only Northern Irish golfer to present a threat to Kaymer over the remaining three rounds. Gareth Maybin is also in the top six, along with Ireland's McGrane and Michael Hoey. And although none of them would be considered in the same big hitting class as Kaymer, their tight controlled games are ideally suited to the narrow, tree-lined fairways of Valderrama.
Three successive bogeys on the back nine ruined Kaymer's round, after he reached the turn at level par, though he at least showed signs of recovery with birdie at the par-4 16th.