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Garcia challenges at Open de Espana

LAS PALMAS, Spain, April 25 (UPI) -- Sergio Garcia returned to the European Tour Thursday and carded a 5-under-par 67 to get within a stroke of the lead after the first round of the Open de Espana.

Garcia, the fifth-ranked player in the world from Spain, attracted the biggest gallery at El Cortijo Club de Campo and finished the day a stroke behind co-leaders David Gilford of England and Soren Hansen of Denmark.

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In action for the first time since he finished eighth at The Masters, Garcia birdied the second and third holes and Nos. 11, 12 and 16 en route to what he called a "very comfortable 67."

"I played extremely well and hit a lot of great shots," he said. "Unfortunately, I missed about four putts I should have made. That made the round a little disappointing, but apart from that everything else was great."

The tournament also features the return of Masters runner-up Retief Goosen of South Africa. The world No. 4 struggled on the greens and managed a 1-over 73.

"I probably could have made 69 if a few putts had dropped in, but I just couldn't make any," said Goosen, the reigning U.S. Open champion. "Hopefully, tomorrow will be a different day and I can find some rhythm and get my game lifted a little bit."

Hansen made his move in the morning. He had five birdies from Nos. 8-14, including consecutive 25-foot putts to cap the run.

The 27-year-old Hansen admitted he has benefitted from a partnership with countryman Thomas Bjorn. The two shared second at last season's World Cup team event in Japan, losing a four-team playoff.

"That was a great experience, and I learned a lot from that," Hansen said. "Thomas had taken good care of me before we went to Japan and has been looking out for me afterwards, too, which is great."

Gilford matched Hansen's 66 in the afternoon, rolling in his seventh and final birdie at the par-4 18th hole to help ease some of the pain of his lost playoff to Carl Pettersson in Portugal earlier this year.

"Obviously, it would have been nice to have won," he said. "But second is the best finish I have had in a number of years, so it gave me confidence above all else."

Hansen and Gilford are a stroke ahead of Garcia, Greg Owen, Marcel Siem and Jamie Spence.

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