SHANGHAI (AP) – Graeme McDowell likes a tough golf course, and Sheshan International was perfect for him Thursday. He opened with seven birdies in 12 holes and then hung on for a 5-under 67 that gave him a two-shot lead after one round of the HSBC Champions.
In the 10th year of this tournament, the golf course was tougher than ever with ankle-deep rough and fairways that are not nearly as wide. That didn't seem to bother McDowell, who only once had to contend with the thick grass.
''A big key to this golf course is driving the ball well. I drove it very well today,'' McDowell said. ''And the greens are in fantastic shape, and I actually putted very well. Dropped a couple coming in, but all in all, very pleased with 5-under par on what I thought was a reasonably tricky day.''
Rickie Fowler also got off to a fast start before he settled down for a 69, joining a group that included U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer, Brandt Snedeker, Tim Clark, Chris Kirk and Tommy Fleetwood.
The wind was strong and out of the opposite direction, which added to the demanding conditions.
Jordan Spieth began his new PGA Tour season with two straight bogeys and had to save par with a long bunker shot on his third hole. He scratched his way back and wound up in a large group at 70 that featured Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson.
It didn't take much for players to get going in the wrong direction.
FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel made a pair of double bogeys, only one birdie and shot an 80.
''This is a top event – some of the best players in the world, probably the best field you're going to get in Asia, and you don't want it to be a pushover,'' Fowler said. ''You want a good, solid test. And it's showing that.''
Only 27 players in the 78-man field broke par, compared with 37 players under par on the first day last year when the winning score was 24-under 264. McDowell said he wouldn't be surprised to see something about 12 under win, even if the wind relents.
Some players like Fowler and Spieth had limited expectations having not played since the Ryder Cup. McDowell, meanwhile, has played twice since the Ryder Cup, including a tie for 16th a week ago at the BMW Masters.
Even so, the strong start surprised him.
He ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine, capping it off by driving the reachable 16th green and two-putting from 15 feet, and then holing a 45-foot birdie across the green on the par-3 17th. Two quick birdies after making the turn and he was at 7 under and on verge of running away from the field.
But he made his first bogey on the par-3 fourth, which played into the wind. And on the one hole he tried to play it safe off the tee, it cost him. McDowell opted for 3-wood on the 603-yard eighth hole to keep it short of the bunker. He wound up in grass so thick he could only hit 8-iron for his second shot, and then he still had 215 yards left for his third. He pulled a 4-iron into the rough and failed to get up-and-down.
''I didn't need a leaderboard to let me know that 7 under through 12 is fairly strong,'' McDowell said. ''There were some tricky holes on the front nine. I made a couple of putts I should have in the first 12 holes, and then I made a couple of bogeys that I shouldn't have coming in. All in all, I think 5 under was a fair representation of my round.''
Snedeker also did a good job keeping the ball in play. He had high expectations for the week, even though he might get the prize for having traveled the longest – or at least the most – to get to Shanghai.
His plan was to play Japan, Malaysia and China. But he withdrew from the Bridgestone Open when he felt something wrong with his stomach, flew home to Tennessee during the week of Malaysia to get it checked out, then flew back to Asia for the final World Golf Championship of the year.
At least for one day, it was worth the trip.
DIVOTS: Graham DeLaet had to withdraw after a 45 on nine holes because of a neck injury. The Canadian also withdrew from Malaysia last week with a sore neck. … Kevin Stadler withdrew after two holes with a wrist injury. … Jason Dufner had one moment when his body was in China and his head was still in Malaysia. Players were allowed to lift, clean and place their balls last week in soggy Malaysia. Dufner instinctively picked up his ball in the 18th fairway, a one-shot penalty. He had a 72. ''Just one of those things,'' Dufner said with a shrug.