Taking refuge on the Tartan Tour after a solitary and financially crippling year in the big league, Craig Lee made a bright start with a level-par 72 over the windswept Spey Valley course to declare his intentions in the Northern Open.

The 32-year-old from Stirling ended his rookie year on the European Tour at No.186, four places away from even a schedule on the secondary Challenge Tour. "I dropped down two levels. That would be like Inverness Caley Thistle going straight to the second division," he lamented.

If his No.8 status from the 2007 Tartan Tour had not been frozen for his year in Europe allowing him an exemption this year he would have been left with nowhere to play.

On his Speyside odyssey, Lee was two off the first-round pace set by Largs-based Eddie Thomson, English invader Sean Doherty and unattached professional Mark Kerr, a former Lothians county player, in the chase for the top prize which is a victim of these sad economic times. It has fallen from £8000 last year to £2500 because of the absence of a sponsor.

It is small beer by European Tour standards, but for Lee a high finish over the scenic and highly rated Dave Thomas-designed course in the shadow of Cairngorm would be a lifeline in his quest to make it back to the top division. If he succeeds it will have been via an unlikely route.

Taking a sunshine break at the end of the season in Turkey, he discovered that the German EPD Tour, a similar level to the third-division Europro Tour, held a winter series there. Opportunistically he entered, won the first two and is still No.1 on the order of merit.

"If I finish in the top five at the end of the season I'm exempt from the first stage of European Tour qualifying school, so I've been going to Germany to keep it going, but it's very expensive," he said. "I've no money left so I need to do well this week and in the next few pro-ams if I am to return."

On the bounding fairways and taking advantage of calmer morning conditions, Lee was helped by an eagle 3 at the 486-yard fifth courtesy of a drive, 9-iron and 20-foot putt.

As the wind picked up in the afternoon, Braid Hills' Paul McKechnie, third in this tournament for the last two years, reached the green of the 610-yard fifth with a drive and a 7-iron in his 72.

For those who strayed from the straight and narrow into the heather, the penalties were severe. Lee Harper, the runner-up here last year, had a 90 which was not the worst of the day, while Gordon Sherry's comeback was on hold after a 78.

Ronan Rafferty, a former European No.1 now aged 45, was seven over par when he lost two balls at the last, surrendered there and then handed in a no return, blaming his other life as a television pundit for limiting his practice.