THE golfer known as ‘‘Gonzo’’ was anything but a muppet as he began the windswept Qatar Masters with a brilliant six under par 66.
Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez- Castano birdied the last three holes to deny 45-year-old American John Daly – 543rd in the world – the overnight lead in the second leg of the European Tour’s Middle East swing.
The desert storm was such that many players wore sunglasses to try to limit the amount of sand blowing into their eyes on what Daly called a ‘‘brutal’’ day.
Defending champion Thomas Bjorn slumped to a 79 and Ross Fisher and Henrik Stenson both failed to break 80, but Lee Westwood kept his hopes alive with a 71.
Graeme Storm, of Hartlepool and playing out of Rockliffe Hall, also had a 71 and sits in joint 15th spot. He tees off in the second last group today at 12.20pm.
Fernandez-Castano could well take over top spot from Rory McIlroy in the race for Ryder Cup places if he wins this weekend and the 31-yearold from Madrid almost defied belief by grabbing nine birdies in all.
‘‘I would have taken level par,’’ said the man who last year missed the cut in nextto- last place with two rounds of 78 and then was out of action for almost six months with a back injury.
He told Sky Sports: ‘‘We couldn’t see the ball landing on the fairways and I just tried to keep it as low as possible.
I think I just got lucky and holed some important putts. Putting is the most difficult thing on a windy day.’’ Daly’s last victory was eight years ago, he no longer has a PGA Tour card and the last time he was in the headlines was for walking out of the Australian Open in November after hitting a succession of shots into a lake and saying he had run out of balls.
It was in a strong wind that he won the 1995 Open at St Andrews, but he did not expect this.
‘‘I’m pretty shocked,’’ Daly said after keeping a bogey off his card. ‘‘I had five and a half weeks off and really didn’t touch a club much.
‘‘It’s one of the best rounds I’ve ever played in a wind like that. You feel like you are eating a lot of sand.’’ Only nine of the 132 players broke 70, with Korean KJ Choi and Australian Jason Day shooting 68 and England’s Richard Finch and Danny Willett, Scot Paul Lawrie, Swede Peter Hanson and Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts being one further back.
Lawrie said: ‘‘I’ve sand in places I didn’t know I had places.’’