Pulkkanen makes most of quick greens to race into the lead at the Italian Open

Finland’s Tapio Pulkkanen in the first round of the 2019 Italian Open
Finland’s Tapio Pulkkanen leads the Italian Open at Rome’s Olgiata Golf Club after a blistering 64 in the first round. Picture by GETTY IMAGES

FINLAND’S Tapio Pulkkanen fired a bogey-free 64 to take a one-shot lead after the opening round of the Italian Open with World No. 5 Justin Rose among those in contention in Rome.

Pulkkanen is currently in 102nd position on the Race to Dubai with only one top 10 finish so far this season – eighth place in the Trophée Hassan II.

But he posted the lowest opening round of his European Tour career to head a strong leaderboard on seven under par round at Olgiata Golf Club, which is hosting the fifth event in the European Tour’s Rolex Series.

Pulkkanen said: “I’m really happy with the score. My putter was really hot, and I didn’t make any bogeys, so it was good.

I made a lot of long putts. I was just actually trying to lag it close, and made a lot of putts by doing that.

“I felt like the greens were really quick. Especially in the morning, first group. Monday, Tuesday, was not that quick, so I had to be really careful with the putting.

I think my first year on the European Tour was a learning year. Second year has been more comfortable being here.

“I haven’t played that well in the Rolex tournaments, so this is kind of new situation, but it’s a long way to go and I feel good about my game.”

The 29-year-old carded five birdies on his front nine after starting on the 10th tee, and added two more on the way to sit one shot clear of American-based Slovakian Rory Sabbatini, who birdied his final hole for a round of 65.

Sabbatini, who was born in South African before moving to the States where he studied at the University of Arizona, said: “Obviously it’s nice to be here playing in Italy.

“I’ve got some roots here in Italy. It’s good to be here, and it’s always a nice change of venue, and see some new courses,” said the six-time PGA Tour winner.

I think just got to continue to try and do what I did today. Keep the ball in play. This is a golf course that I think accuracy is of prime importance out here.

“You know, putting it in play, and then continue to hit greens and I think if you get it on the greens in regulation, minimize the stress, and we’ll see what happens,” added Sabbatini, whose last win came in the 2011 Honda Open, at Florida’s PGA National.

Olympic Champion Rose, who is chasing his third Rolex Series title, is in a group of five players one shot further back on five-under par after posting five birdies in his final eight holes.

The Hampshire-raised ace had mixed two birdies and two bogeys on the front nine in his bid to add the Italian Open to his other Rolex victories in the Turkish Airlines Open in 2017 and 2018.

Rose said: “Probably my putting is what I was happiest with today. I really rolled it beautifully from 10, 12, 15-feet, capitalised a lot on my opportunities.

“It felt like it was one of those days where I walked off the golf course going, ‘I made the most of that round for sure’.”

Rose shares third place with Dutchman Joost Luiten, American Kurt Kitayama, Austrian Rolex Series winner Bernd Wiesberger, who claimed the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open in July, and India’s Shubhankar Sharma, who birdied the 16th and eagled the 17th in his 66.

Sharma said: “I hit a lot of good putts before that and they weren’t falling, so it was kind of getting easier to make a few birdies coming in.

“That tee shot on the 16th was really good, a great four-iron to about seven, eight feet, and I made that putt.

“And 17, again, a good drive and a good four-iron to the middle of the green and that putt obviously was a bonus.

“It was like a 40-footer that I made, so pretty happy,” added Sharma, who won twice on the European Tour in four months at the start of the 2018 season, with victories in the Joburg Open and Malaysia’s Maybank Championship.

Italian Francesco Molinari, the 2018 Open Champion and two-time Italian Open champion, opened with a level-par round of 71, some seven shots behind Pulkkanen.

•For live scoring in round two click here.

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