SHANGHAI (AP) — So much for that notion that American golfers don’t travel well.
The first World Golf Championship in Asia opened Thursday to a leaderboard filled with Stars & Stripes, led by wide-eyed Nick Watney and his 8-under 64 that tied the course record at the HSBC Champions and including, as always, Tiger Woods.
Watney got more excitement than he expected when he went to Shanghai’s metropolis in a cab that weaved through six lanes of cars on a three-lane highway. He felt far more safe at Sheshan International Golf Club, where he kept it down the middle and close to the flag. Watney made an accidental eagle and ran off four straight birdies while building a two-shot lead.
“It was just one of those days where everything was feeling really good, so I wasn’t too jumpy,” Watney said.
Ryan Moore wasn’t about to pass up a trip to China when he qualified by winning his first PGA Tour event in August. With a new equipment deal in place, he shot a 6-under 66 to join Shane Lowry of Ireland and Martin Kaymer of Germany, who is second in the Race to Dubai and facing a big week at this $7 million event.
Woods was the star attraction again, although it is was demanding as ever.
Standing composed over his opening tee shot, he flinched all the way through his swing and let the 3-wood drop at impact upon hearing the shutter of so many cameras, inside and outside the ropes.
“The guy in the grandstand basically did almost a photo sequence,” Woods said. The shot was so short, buried in deep rough right of the fairway, that caddie Steve Williams had to walk 40 yards to find the yardage on a sprinkler.
It was a frenzy for the opening hour, with marshals barking at the gallery not to take pictures, and Thongchai Jaidee’s caddie having to walk up to a grassy hill and escort one photographer to the side of the ropes so his player could hit the shot.
Ultra sensitive when it comes to cameras, Woods handled this day better than most and chalked it up to a maturing golf crowd in China. More frustrating was not knowing where his ball was going throughout a gorgeous afternoon. Still, Woods took care of the par 5s and made enough putts to get around in 67.
“It wasn’t my best ball-striking round today for sure, but I made some putts, which was nice, and just managed my game well,” he said.
Woods was joined by Anthony Kim, who spent most of Tuesday in Hong Kong trying to get his visa situation sorted out, Paul Casey and Lin Wen-tang of Taiwan, giving some local flavor to Asia’s biggest tournament.
Casey had reason to be thrilled with his start, no matter how many shots he feels as though he squandered. It was the first time he kept score over 18 holes since Sunday at Turnberry in the British Open. He had missed three months with a rib injury, returning last week in the World Match Play Championship.
“I don’t quite have the power there yet,” Casey said. “But there is a way to get around the golf course without having that power, and I’m doing it quite well right now.”
Matt Kuchar and Pat Perez were among those at 68, while Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner and Brian Gay checked in at 69. Of the top 20 on the leaderboard through the opening round, nine were Americans.
There were concerns that Americans would stay away from this World Golf Championship, being halfway around the world at the end of a busy year and not counting as an official event on the PGA Tour.
Even so, 13 of them made the trip and all but two broke par. Jerry Kelly was smiling at the way he ground out a 71 while using new grooves in his irons to get ready for next year.
“Got my first shank out of the way,” Kelly said with a laugh.
On the first of two trips to China this month, Watney made an immediate impression.
He birdied his first two holes from inside 10 feet, then hit a hybrid where he wasn’t aiming on the par-5 14th. He was playing away from the flag – and the water guarding the right side – pushed it slightly and was relieved to see it settle 30 feet behind the hole. He made the putt for eagle and turned in 31, then fired off four straight birdies.
“The greens are so good that if you hit a putt on line, it’s definitely going to go in,” Watney said. “So I was putting very well. Just tried to give myself as many chances as possible, and I was able to make a few.”
Watney also had a chance to win a WGC event at Doral, finishing second by one shot to Mickelson.
The 28-year-old American is making his first trip to Asia, though not his last. Watney decided a few months ago to play the World Cup the week of Thanksgiving at Mission Hills near Hong Kong. He wanted to stick around for a few weeks in between, but decided instead to return home to Las Vegas to rest.
Watney, who won at Torrey Pines earlier in the year, is not overly excited about leading after one day, nor was he the least bit concerned when a Chinese reporter mentioned that Woods was moving up the leaderboard.
“If it was Saturday night, I don’t know how well I’d be sleeping,” Watney said with a grin. “But just for Friday, I’m in a great position. At the same time, there’s a really long way to go. It’s always good to beat Tiger, and hopefully I can keep a little cushion between us.”