England’s Ian Poulter marked his return from a four-month injury layoff with a stylish seven under par 64 to share the first round lead with Spaniard Carlos Pigem at The Venetian Macao Open on Thursday.
The former Ryder Cup star birdied all the par five holes at Macau Golf and Country Club and did not drop a shot in the US$1.1 million Asian Tour tournament. Pigem, who broke through for his first Asian win in July, caught Poulter later in the day, thanks to an outstanding outward 28 which included five birdies and an eagle.
Thailand’s Chapchai Nirat led the chasing pack, with two closing birdies giving him a 65 to trail by one, while India’s Anirban Lahiri, champion here in 2014, shot a bogey-free 66 to share third place with Australia’s Marcus Fraser, who made two eagles after suffering an injury scare at the start of his round.
Birthday boy Miguel Tabuena of the Philippines, who turned 22 today, signed for a 67 to share fourth place with back-in-form Australian Marcus Both, last year’s joint runner-up Chiragh Kumar of India and Australia’s Kalem Richardson.
Poulter, a former world number five, was delighted to feature on the leaderboard at The Venetian Macao Open, the Asian Tour’s richest full-field event this season.
“I’ve never had four and half months off in my life, so as much as you think you can prepare, you have no idea what to expect. It’s an unusual position but I played nicely,” said the 40-year-old, who was a vice captain for Europe at the recent Ryder Cup.
“I just tried to get my game into shape coming out here. I birdied all the par fives which is obviously very helpful and I didn’t make any mistakes. It’s the type of course where if you manage to do that you can piece together a very nice score.”
After having a carbon plate inserted into his insole to help alleviate a leg injury, Poulter did not pick up his clubs for 14 weeks, and despite his brilliant start today is prepared to take it one step at a time.
“The most important thing I’ll take away is how solid I played in all areas of my game. It’s a great start but there’s a long way to go,” said Poulter, who is a 16-time winner, including twice on the Asian Tour.
After missing his last three cuts, Pigem, 26, bounced back to form as he shot a career first 28, which included a chip-in eagle on the third. “To be honest, on mini golf, or pitch and putt, I may have shot  but certainly not in a tournament,” he smiled.
“I’ve been playing badly the past few weeks. But today I enjoyed myself and made birdies again, which is important. Hopefully I can keep it like this.”
Four-time Asian Tour winner Chapchai wielded a hot putter, needing only 27 strokes on the short grass. “I’ve not putted well the past few months but the Thai players were giving me some tips on Wednesday, telling me to be more aggressive with my stroke. It worked,” said the 33-year-old.
Reigning Asian Tour number one Lahiri took his customary place among the leaders with five birdies. Like Poulter, he was also returning from injury, but showed no rust after some early struggles in Indonesia last week.
“My shoulder is beginning to heal and the nerves are settling down. I’m definitely in a better place physically, and when I get to this golf course, I’m in a good place mentally as well,” said Lahiri, who has been runner-up here twice and is 47 under par over the last three years.
“My game has sort of moulded to this course. I’m happy with my round, minimised mistakes and didn’t hit too many poor shots.”
Fraser, second on the Asian Tour Order of Merit, had a scare early on with back spasm. But after receiving treatment, the Aussie hit the ground running, knocking a superb three wood to eight feet for eagle on 18 and then holing out from the fairway on the eighth hole from about 65 yards out.
“It’s a pretty colourful scorecard, that’s for sure,” said Fraser, who won in Malaysia earlier this season. “My back went into a spasm when we were about to go off from the tenth tee. Hopefully I’ll be able to get it sorted as it wasn’t feeling too good.”