Published: Sep 01, 2011 6:03 PM EDT
Updated: Sep 02, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

CRANS-SUR-SIERRE, Switzerland (AP) - The long nightmare of Nick Dougherty's 2011 season could soon be over, after he hit an 8-under 63 to lead the European Masters after the first round on Thursday.

Dougherty has missed the cut at 21 straight European Tour events dating back to the final event last season.

A three-time winner on tour, the 29-year-old Englishman has zero winnings on the current money list and his world ranking has dived to No. 791.

"I don't need to get into too much detail (about) how bad it has been," Dougherty acknowledged after playing his best round of the year.

He had eight birdies and didn't drop a shot in his 63, to take a two-stroke lead over a group including recent major winners Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer.

"I deserved every one of those eight under-pars today. I played aggressively and backed myself," Dougherty said.

"It was a massive boost of confidence."

Dougherty confessed that his collapse in form had shattered his self-belief.

"Everything that gave me the swagger turned into what made me slump my shoulders," said the 2002 European rookie of the year.

Dougherty showed his potential when finishing tied for seventh at the 2007 U.S. Open, won by Argentina's Angel Cabrera, having led after the first round at Oakmont, Pennsylvania.

He last won in June 2009 at the BMW Open in Munich, Germany, before his results began to slide last year.

"It's fairly obvious my game started to deteriorate after my mum passed away," Dougherty said.

"I had nothing. No artillery. No shots. At any time I could lose a ball. Golf has been a massive part of my life since I was four and when it is as bad as it has been I can't live my life the way I want to."

Dougherty married television journalist Di Stewart, a Sky Sports golf presenter, last New Year's Eve at the sport's spiritual home, St. Andrews.

"She's a rock for me. It is hard for her. I can't pretend I've been coming home happy," he said.

"Di was always there to pick me up and remind me who I am. Every week I missed the cut I still turned up the next week feeling that would be the week, and that takes a lot of strength."

Dougherty's streak almost stopped at five in March, when he shot a first-round 67 at the Andalucian Open in Spain. He followed up with a 74 and failed to make it into the weekend.

He cited fellow pros Colin Montgomerie and Thomas Bjorn, plus his mentor Nick Faldo, among his staunch supporters in a tour family that has sympathized with his struggles.

"I was never going to walk away from the game as it is not in me to quit. But I certainly felt like I might have lost it," Dougherty said.

Making the cut here will be a first small victory yet Dougherty has bigger targets.

"I've got to work to even keep my tour card but that's not my goal. My goal is to win again and I firmly believe I will with the work I've done," he said.

"Tomorrow (Friday) I'll play aggressively again. If it comes unstuck, it comes unstuck, but it won't be through fear."