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Argentinian leads in Crans

Dwarfed by the mountains: world number four Ernie Els had to settle for par

(Keystone)

Argentinian underdog Ricardo Gonzalez provided some sparkle to an overcast Crans-Montana on Thursday as the prestigious European Masters golf tournament got underway.

Following a delay due to frost in the unusually chilly Swiss resort, the 31-year-old Gonzalez fired his way around the high-altitude course in an impressive six under par to take the overnight lead.

"Every player wants a low round like that," said Gonzalez afterwards. "I hit the ball about 20 yards more at this altitude, but it is difficult to judge the distance."

The Argentinian is no stranger to overcoming difficulties, having reached the heady heights of the European Tour despite coming from an underprivileged background.

"We were very poor as a family," Gonzalez explained. "I came from a poor house with three brothers and three sisters. I was the only one who played golf, and I had to work my way up from being a caddie. It is very important for me to be able to help my family and friends."

Gonzalez is now hoping to follow in the footsteps of his friend and mentor Eduardo Romero, who won last year's Crans-Montana title by an incredible ten strokes. With this year's event attracting an extremely strong field, though, there is no shortage of big names waiting to pounce.

European Ryder Cup team member Thomas Bjorn is the best-positioned of those big names, following Thursday's action. The Swedish world number 20 finished the day on five under, following a round that included three successive birdies between the sixth and eighth holes.

Former US Open champion Craig Stadler only put his name down for this weekend's tournament after deciding to take a holiday in Europe, but his decision to stop over in Switzerland appeared to pay off on Thursday, when the veteran shot a two under par 69.

Reigning European number one Lee Westwood is just one stroke behind Stadler, although the 28-year-old Englishman was not happy about the number of mobile phones which rang during his round. "I want to buy some shares in Swiss telecom," Westwood later grumbled.

South African world number four Ernie Els got his round off to a cracking start with two birdies, but struggled on the back nine to finish the day on par.

Spanish legend Seve Ballesteros has won three times here in Crans and was responsible for the redesigning of the Swiss course two years ago. On Thursday, though, he may have come to regret his alterations after finishing with an opening round of two over par.

Switzerland's top golfer Paolo Quirici, who accompanied Ballesteros, ended up a further shot behind the Spaniard on three over after a bogey at the 17th.

There were some disastrous scores among the other Swiss contenders with Alexandre Chopard, Jacques Blatti and Steve Rey finishing on nine, ten and 12 over par respectively. But an unexpectedly strong performance from Markus Knight, who shot a par 71, should give home fans some hope going into the next three days of play.

By Mark Ledsom, Crans-Montana

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