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Cabrera-Bello and Jimenez lead Spanish charge

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Cabrera-Bello and Jimenez lead Spanish charge
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Rafael Cabrera-Bello is one off the Open Championship lead after entering the week ranked No. 100.(Getty …

By Steve Douglas, Associated Press

GULLANE, Scotland -- Sergio Garcia was expected to lead Spain's six-man charge to become the country's first Open Championship winner since Seve Ballesteros in 1988.

Yet, on a scorching day at Muirfield on Thursday, Garcia was firmly put in the shade by Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Playing in fast, dry conditions that made the Spanish contingent feel right at home, Cabrera-Bello shot a 4-under 67 to sit one stroke off the lead held by Zach Johnson at the end of the first round.

The 49-year-old Jimenez -- famed for his ponytail, pot belly and cigar-smoking -- was a stroke further back after a 68, having led the field by three shots at one point after making five birdies in his opening nine holes.

"It was nice to come here and feel that heat," the 100th-ranked Cabrera-Bello said. "Especially for me coming from the Canary Islands, it's something I really enjoy, really appreciate. I mean, I was enjoying every second of the day as soon as I got here."

The spirit of Seve Ballesteros pulled Europe's Ryder Cup team through to an improbable victory at Medinah last year and Jimenez recalled the late, great Ballesteros as he spoke of his desire to become the oldest player to lift the claret jug.

"It's 25 years for me on the (European) Tour ... and the last time Seve won the Open was in 1988, in Lytham St. Anne's, right?" Jimenez said. "It would be great if one of the Spanish win the tournament, especially if it's myself -- even better.

"I would love to have a major in my career. I would love to have one of these. I don't know how much longer for me on the tour. I'm 49, you know."

Unless a Scot goes on to capture the claret, there would likely be no more popular winner than Jimenez, a Ryder Cup stalwart and the owner of a frame that could generously be described as portly. He looks like your average weekend golfer until he produces that slow, relaxed swing that yielded three birdies in the first three holes.

Not bad for a veteran who recently returned to action after breaking his right leg in a skiing accident while on vacation in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucia, southern Spain.

"If you break your leg at 30 years old, you can say, `OK, I'm going to have a sabbatical year,' but at 49 you don't want to spend any sabbatical day," Jimenez said, laughing. "It's tough so many months without hitting. Just knowing the competition that is around."

Jimenez, who is playing with padding under his left elbow because of tendinitis, became the oldest winner in European Tour history when he won the Hong Kong Open last year at 48 years, 318 days.

He's looking to make more history at Muirfield, with Old Tom Morris currently the oldest British Open winner at 46 years, 99 days from back in 1867.

Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano also got off to a solid start with a 1-under 70, but it was a miserable afternoon for the other three Spaniards.

The 15th-ranked Garcia stumbled to a 4-over 75, while compatriots Eduardo De la Riva (2 over) and Alvaro Quiros (6 over) could also struggle to make the cut.

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