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Holder Molinari in six-way Italian Open lead

© Getty/AFP/File | Francesco Molinari of Italy hits his approach shot on the eighth hole during the third round of the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club on September 16, 2017 in Lake Forest, Illinois

MILAN (AFP) - 

Defending champion Francesco Molinari hit nine birdies to share a six-way lead with a seven-under-par 64 on the first day of the Italian Open in Monza on Thursday.

The four-time European Tour winner from Italy shared the early lead with Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Wales's Jamie Donaldson and Swede Alexander Bjork. They were joined later in the day by the English pair of Eddie Pepperell and Matt Wallace.

"I started pretty much where I left off last year, so it was great," Molinari, who carded two bogeys, told europeantour.com.

South African George Coetzee and An Byeong-Hun of South Korea were a shot behind on six-under, with Masters champion Sergio Garcia among a group a further stroke back.

A dropped shot at the third threatened to derail Molinari's challenge but, after pulling off two tremendous par saves at the fourth and fifth, he fired another birdie at the sixth to return to seven under.

Kiradech led for most of the morning after firing four birdies in his first eight holes before pulling off an important par save at the 18th.

The 28-year-old's putting reaped further gains at the first, third and fourth and he safely parred his final five holes to sign for a flawless 64.

Kiradech said: "This course really suits my game - small greens, quite a narrow golf course and my driver and putter are working so well, so that's why I made a good start."

Bjork finished his round in style after starting on the back nine, firing birdies at the sixth, eighth and ninth.

"I played really solid today," he said. "I'm really pleased with that round."

Spanish star Jon Rahm made a solid start playing alongside compatriot Garcia.

The world number five carded a bogey-free round of 67 and is only three shots off the lead.

© 2017 AFP