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Poulter shoots 64 to take first-round lead

JEREZ, Spain -- Ian Poulter cashed in on near-perfect conditions at Montecastillo Golf Club on Thursday to take the first-round lead in the Volvo Masters with a bogey-free 64.

Poulter, fresh from finishing third at last week's Italian Open, reeled off six birdies and an eagle to move one shot ahead of Peter Lonard, who had
set the early pace with a 65.

Paul McGinley produced a flawless 66, after finishing eagle-par-birdie, while Padraig Harrington and Adam Scott shared fourth place at 67.

Poulter, who won the 2001 European rookie of the year award, completed sent 33-31 to return his lowest first-round score on the European Tour. Rifling his approaches into the hard Montecastillo greens with unerring accuracy, he holed birdie putts from just four feet at the seventh and from five feet at the short 11th.

He set up his eagle at the 517-yard 16th with a good drive down the middle followed by a 7-iron approach to 15 feet, and then birdied the 17th from 20 feet to get to 8-under for the day.

"I hit it nice on the range and it felt great today after last week where I felt I didn't putt as well as I should have," said Poulter, who lies 21st on the European money list with only this week's event remaining. "Coming into the week, I've worked hard on the same stuff and everything's gone quite nicely. All in all, it was a solid round of golf today, but I could have got a few more out there."

Earlier in the year Poulter drained himself in an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the European Ryder Cup squad. He played in 30 events, but wound up 11th, missing the team by one position.

"I made the decision to play every week, and obviously somewhere along the line it was going to hit me," Poulter said. "Then I took a lot of rest and I've come back and played well."

Lonard, who has won twice on his home Australasian Tour, reeled off six birdies in his first 12 holes. Although he faltered slightly when he bogeyed the par-4 15th, he bounced back immediately with a superb eagle at the 16th.

"That eagle was a nice finish to the day, especially after dropping a shot at the hole before after a poor drive," said Lonard, whose best result in Europe was a tie for second at the 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic and at the 1999 Heineken Classic.

"It's definitely my best start in Europe this year. Usually I'm a pretty slow starter and my putting hasn't been good enough to go low early," he said. "In fact, that was as good a putting round as I've had for a long time. I've never putted as well here as I have in Australia."

Retief Goosen, who has already secured the Order of Merit, also kept in touch despite a pair of 6s on his scorecard. Goosen ended the day just four strokes off the pace at 68 in the final event of the season.

A brilliant birdie-birdie-eagle start in bright sunshine had moved the U.S. Open champion to 4-under after just three holes. Although Goosen hit his drive out of bounds at the fifth to run up a double-bogey and found water at the par-5 16th to drop another shot, he managed to birdie Nos. 6, 8 and 12 to stay in contention for his fourth European title of the year.

Goosen secured the money title two weeks ago after his playoff victory in the Madrid Open, and he was officially presented with the Order of Merit trophy after his opening round at Montecastillo on Thursday.

"I started great today, then I struggled with my swing for the rest of the round," Goosen said. "I had a few birdie chances, on 13 and 14, but did not take them. But it's a good opening score that gives me a good chance for the rest of the week. Hopefully, I can go low tomorrow and move up the leaderboard."

Lee Westwood, Jose Maria Olazabal, and Bernhard Langer were at 69, a shot ahead of Darren Clarke and two in front of Colin Montgomerie.