LOUIS De Jager made a strong start to his quest to keep his European Tour card at the Portugal Masters after an eight-under par first round at Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course.
The South African, who started the week in 123rd place on the Race to Dubai rankings, went bogey-free in the Algarve with a round of 63.
That left him two strokes ahead of compatriot Justin Walters, Essex’s Oliver Fisher and Australian Jake McLeod.
Thirty-two-year-old De Jager, who has six wins on the Sunshine Tour, said: “I made a few nice putts in the beginning and then really hit it well towards the end and kept the momentum going.
“The greens are very good. They are really fast. I felt comfortable. I left myself in the right spots on the greens, on the right plateaus, which made it much easier.
“There are some tricky putts on those greens, but I kept it easy for myself. I think everyone is more conscious of where they are (on the Race to Dubai Rankings),” said De Jager, who has yet to break his duck in Europe in 75 starts.
“My back is against the wall a little bit, for me I can only go forward,” added De Jager who is in his rookie year having come through the Qualifying School last year, despite having played in European Tour events for the past decade as a member of the Sunshine Tour.
“I’m using that as extra motivation and encouragement – not that you need it, but that did help a little bit,” said Louis.
Fisher, who carded the first 59 in European Tour history at the Vilamoura venue last year, and Walters are also fighting to secure their playing rights for next season.
Fisher, the youngest player to have have appeared in the Walker Cup back in 2005, started the week in 112th place while Walters, who saved his card with a gutsy final round display at the Victoria Course in 2013, is nine spots further down the European Tour’s Order of Merit.
Fisher, whose only win came in the Czech Masters in 2011, said: “I’m really pleased.
“I played very solid. It was nice to go around and have a lot of chances and feel as though I was in control of what I was doing.
“Last week was a tough week in France. It’s nice to get rid of the clouds which were here on Tuesday and Wednesday,” said the 31-year-old from Chingford, whose biggest win as an amateur came in the 2006 St Andrews Links Trophy.
“We have blue skies and we’re on a course we’re all familiar with and it’s a nice start to the week.”
McLeod must win or finish in solo second to move above the cut-off point, which, as things stand after the first round in Vilamoura, is the top 115 players on the Race to Dubai rankings, who, at the conclusion of the Portugal Masters, will secure their cards for 2020.
Jake McLeod said: “It’s quite wide off the tee, so you can get up there and really give it a rip.
“But it can be quite penalising around the greens if you miss in the wrong spots – they’re running quite fast this week.
“I found myself on a lot of the good sides today – hopefully I can keep doing that. This season has been pretty average, so I’ve come out here and I’ll have a bit of fun and probably go to Q-School unless I get the win.”
Walters, who is coached by West Hove’s Ryan Fenwick, said: “The kind of round I needed, given where I am. I was really calm today – that’s my manta all week.
“I love coming back to Portugal, I love this golf course and love being here. To play well on top of that is a bonus, but it’s required.
“The hardest part about today was not trying too hard – I’ve been doing that regularly this year,” added Walters, who was also among the early leaders at the Alfred Dunhill Links, in Scotland, last month.
“I just stayed in every shot and stayed in the present, it was lovely to do that,” said Walters.
Benign conditions led to a day of low scoring in the Algarve, with 75 of the 126-man field beating par.
•For live scoring in the Portugal Masters, click here.