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Defending champion Francesco Molinari among Italian Open leaders

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Molinari thanks Italian crowd for share of lead (1:03)

Joint leaders Eddie Pepperell and Francesco Molinari react to a strong start at the Italian Open. (1:03)

Defending champion Francesco Molinari is in a six-way tie for the lead after the first round of the Italian Open.

The home favourite carded nine birdies and two bogeys in a sparkling 64 to delight the Milan crowd.

Molinari was joined by England's Eddie Pepperell and Matt Wallace, Welshman Jamie Donaldson, Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Alexander Bjork on seven under par. George Coetzee and Byeong Hun An lie a shot further back, while Masters champion Sergio Garcia and English duo Matt Wallace and Chris Paisley are among eight players tied on five under.

Starting at the 10th hole, Molinari registered a hat trick of birdies from the 14th which he capped by draining a brilliant 20-footer at the 16th. He finished his front nine in style, chipping in for a birdie at the 18th to get to five under before picking up further shots at the first and second.

Molinari told the European Tour website: "Obviously it was another good day. I started pretty much where I left off last year, so it was great.

"It's great to see the crowds. I think there's a nice buzz around the place and I'm happy and proud to be part of it."

A high-profile three-ball saw the top three in the Race to Dubai, Tommy Fleetwood, Garcia and Jon Rahm, teeing off together. England's Fleetwood, currently leading the rankings, hit a level-par 71 while third-placed Rahm came home in 67.