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Hennie Otto fired a career-best 7-under-par 64 to take a one-shot lead over five others through 18 holes of the Belgacom Open in Royal Zoute, Belgium.
 
A rookie on the European Tour, Otto is in dire need of a strong finish to the season in order to maintain his playing privileges. With just over $60,000 in earnings this year, Otto stands 135th on the current Order of Merit - 20 spots removed from an automatic exemption in 2001.
 
Time is running out for the 24-year-old South African. The Belgacom Open is one of only four remaining full-field events on the 2000 schedule.
 
Thursday, Otto didn't show a sense of urgency out of the gates. He parred his first eight holes before recording his first birdie of the day at the par-4 9th. That's when the floodgates opened.
 
Otto birdied four consecutive holes beginning at the 9th, and seven of his final 10 holes. The South African's back-nine surge moved him past early leaders Padraig Harrington and Marc Farry, who each carded rounds of 6-under-par 65.
 
'I've been working really hard on my mental approach to the game and staying focused,' said Otto. 'It's coming through slowly but surely.
 
'Today I hit the ball great the first eight holes but just didn't make the putts. Then made a 20-footer on nine and thought the luck was going to change. Hit a good second shot on 10 to six feet and made that. Then I felt the confidence grow.'
 
By day's end, there was a quintet of players within one shot of Otto's lead. Lee Westwood, Stephen Scahill and Olle Karlsson (no relation to defending champion Robert) all opened in 65.
 
Said Westwood: 'There's a long way to go but I'm in good position. It is always nice to start off with a fast start and get into contention early. You feel like you are in the tournament more.'
 
Westwood is trying to reclaim the top spot on the Order of Merit. He currently trails Darren Clark by just over $82,000. Clarke is tied for 108th after the first round. The Ulsterman opened in 2-over-par 73.
 
While Clarke had a frustrating first day, at least it wasn't painful. The same can't be said for Thomas Bjorn. The Dane, currently fourth on the Order of Merit, had to withdraw from competition due to a foot injury after playing just five holes.
 
'It is inflamed underneath the left foot,' said Bjorn. 'It has been bothering me every day this week especially in the evenings. It was all right in the mornings, so I thought I would keep going and give it a try. I took a few painkillers this morning but it is not getting any better. There is too much big golf coming up for me.
 
'I'll be fine next week. I need some ice and some rest. I'm going to go straight home and get some treatment in London. I'll be back next week.'
 
Aside from Bjorn's withdrawal, three holes-in-one highlighted Thursday. Ivo Giner, Jean-Franois Remesy and Paul Affleck all carded an ace. Unfortunately, none of them managed the feat on the 16th, where a heart-shaped diamond worth $30,000 was for the taking.