Liam Johnston charges ahead in Portugal Masters

A sizzling 61 helped Liam Johnston take the lead at the Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course in Vilamoura. He is ahead by three over Laurie Canter.

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Liam Johnston - European Tour - Getty Images

Liam Johnston produced the lowest round of his European Tour career on Thursday, firing a sparkling 61 to open up a commanding lead on the first day of the 2020 Portugal Masters.

After notching four early birdies to reach the turn in 31 blows, the Scot put himself in a strong position to match the historic 59 Oliver Fisher shot here two years ago with further gains at the tenth, 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th to get to nine under par with the long 17th still to come.

He narrowly cleared the water with his approach into Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course’s final par five but could not hole his eagle putt from range.

Johnston went for the pin with his second shot at the 18th in a last ditch attempt to tie Fisher’s European Tour record but had to settle for a par at the last to head into the clubhouse with a three shot lead on ten under par.

Laurie Canter was alone in second place on seven-under after making seven birdies and no bogeys in his opening 64.

Fellow early starter Jonathan Caldwell was another stroke further back alongside Thorbjørn Olesen, who had four holes of his first-round still to play when Johnston left the 18th green.

Johnston made a strong start on Thursday morning, picking up a shot at the first before reeling off a hat-trick of birdies at the fourth, fifth and sixth to get to four under.

After starting his back nine with another birdie on the tenth, the Dumfries native took advantage of the par five 12th before holing his 18 foot birdie putt at the 13th to join early clubhouse leader Canter on seven under.

He left his 12 foot birdie try short at the 14th but got up and down from the rough for another gain on the 15th to grab the outright lead.

Johnston sent his tee shot at the par three 16th to around 20 feet before nonchalantly knocking that in for yet another birdie.

The 27-year-old’s heart must have been in his mouth at the long 17th when his approach only just cleared the water and landed safely on the green.

He could not make his lengthy eagle putt there but tapped in for a birdie, knowing he would now need to hole his second shot at the 18th to make a 59.

Johnston was unable to do that, lifting his approach past the pin and into the first cut of rough behind the green.

He left his chip four feet short of the hole but rolled in his par putt to sign for a bogey free 61.

“With the rough out there, it’s nice to keep the bogeys off the card,” said Johnston, whose best finish of the season so far is tied 15th at the ISPS HANDA Wales Open. “I saved well when I needed to and I holed a lot of good putts out there. I’m delighted with the ten birdies.

“I told my coach back home that I was swinging it as good as I have. My game feels like it’s really trending in the right direction, more importantly I’m in a really good place mentally.

“I didn’t see a round like this coming but I feel like I was playing well.”

Canter also started well on Thursday, following up a birdie on the second with a hat-trick of gains at the fourth, fifth and sixth to jump to four under.

The 30-year-old then took advantage of the par three eighth to reach the turn in 30 shots.

He continued to create chances as he began the back nine, narrowly missing birdie putts from just inside ten feet at the tenth and 11th.

Canter got a huge slice a luck at the 12th as his approach shot narrowly avoided the water and he went on to save par and remain at five under.

Another birdie chance came and went at the short 13th as his 20 foot effort just evaded the hole, while he also missed his birdie try from a similar distance on the 14th.

Canter finally broke his run of pars with a birdie from five feet on the 15th before just missing another birdie putt from around 15 feet at the 16th.

After his eagle putt from 20 feet at the 17th pulled up just short, Canter tapped in for a birdie to move to seven under before closing his round with a par.

Canter was pleased with his performance. He said: “I’m really happy with that.

“I think the key thing this week is going to be hitting it on the fairways and I managed to do that really well.

“If you do that then it plays kind of how it has in the past but if you don’t, with this rough, then it’s like a different golf course.”