Fernandez-Castano leads Daly by one at wind-whipped Qatar Masters

francesco molinari
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The sand in the air was clearly visible on the 18th hole Thursday, even if the green wasn't.
PA Sport and Associated Press

Series: European Tour

Published: Thursday, February 02, 2012 | 11:35 a.m.

DOHA, Qatar -- Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano finished with three straight birdies for a 6-under 66 Thursday at the Commercialbank Qatar Masters, overcoming wind and blowing sand to lead after the first round.
The Spaniard, who is looking for his sixth European Tour victory, credited his putting. He holed several putts of more than 20 feet on his way to nine birdies to go along with three bogeys.

John Daly (67) was a shot behind, followed by K.J. Choi (68) and Jason Day (68). Six players, including 1999 British Open champion Paul Lawrie and Nicolas Colsaerts, are three shots off the pace.
Fernandez-Castano birdied thosee last three holes to deny Daly – now ranked 543rd in the world - the overnight lead on a day in which the desert storm was such that many players wore sunglasses to try to limit the amount of sand blowing into their eyes. Daly called it a "brutal" day.

Defending champion Thomas Bjorn slumped to a 79 and fellow stars Ross Fisher and Henrik Stenson both failed to break 80, but Lee Westwood kept his hopes alive with a 71. About two-thirds of the field shot over par.

Fernandez-Castano could well take over the top spot from Rory McIlroy in the race for European Ryder Cup places if he wins this weekend, and the 31-year-old from Madrid grabbed nine birdies in all.

"I would have taken level par," said Fernandez-Castano, who last year missed the cut in next-to-last place with two rounds of 78 and then was out of action for almost six months with a back injury.

"We couldn't see the ball landing on the fairways and I just tried to keep it as low as possible," he said. "I think I just got lucky and holed some important putts. Putting is the most difficult thing on a windy day."

Daly's last victory was eight years ago, he no longer has a PGA Tour card and the last time he was in the headlines was for walking out of the Australian Open in November after hitting a succession of shots into a lake and saying he had run out of balls.

It was in a strong wind that he won the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews, but he did not expect this.

"I'm pretty shocked," Daly said after keeping a bogey off his card. "I had five-and-a-half weeks off and really didn't touch a club much.

"It's one of the best rounds I've ever played in a wind like that. You feel like you are eating a lot of sand."

Only nine of the 132 players broke 70, with Korean K.J. Choi and Australian Jason Day shooting 68 and England's Richard Finch and Danny Willett, Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, Sweden’s Peter Hanson and Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts being one further back.

"I've sand in places I didn't know I had places," quipped Lawrie, whose win in the event in 1999 was followed by his British Open triumph that summer.

Graeme McDowell won his duel with Hunter Mahan – they were opponents in the decisive Ryder Cup singles match at Celtic Manor two years ago - but 73 and 74 kept them both in the pack.

Ryder Cup Captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who turns 46 on Sunday, reached 5 under, but bogeyed four of the last seven holes, while fellow Spaniard Alvaro Quiros -- first, second and second the last three years -- dropped three shots in his last two holes for a 72.

Sergio Garcia's bogey-bogey finish left him on the same score, but world No. 4 Martin Kaymer hit back from missing the cut in his Abu Dhabi title defense last week with a 71.

Fisher, now out of the world's top 100 two years after being part of the Ryder Cup side, did not have a single birdie in his 81, while Stenson's 82 included a triple-bogey 8 on the ninth. Stenson was fourth in the world less than three years ago. Now he is 222nd.

And the bad news for the entire field is that the wind is expected to be even stronger for the second round.