Darren Clarke set the early pace in the Volvo PGA Championship after a flawless opening round of 66, six under par, over the famous West Course at Wentworth Club earned him a one stroke lead.
The Ulsterman has twice finished runner-up in The European Tour’s flagship event behind Colin Montgomerie but set about putting the record straight with an imperious display where he missed only one green. An eagle-birdie finish put the icing on the cake as he took the outright lead.
“I’m pleased with the start,” said Clarke “I was patient all day and a few good things happened at the end. I had chances everywhere. Wentworth is always going to give you a few chances and that’s why I stayed patient and waited for it to happen because I knew I was hitting the ball well.
“This championship is high on everybody’s portfolio to win. It’s the Volvo PGA Championship and one we all want to win. Certainly I would love to get an opportunity to win this week. But this is the first round, it’s an awful long way to go, but I am pleased to get off to the start I have.”
Clarke has played well tee to green all season but the putts have refused to drop. But having teamed up with putting guru Harold Swash, Clarke has made a few changes and is starting to feel more comfortable on the greens, although 32 putts indicated he perhaps left a few shots out there.
Clarke is also embarking on a new diet and fitness regime after deciding mistakes were creeping into the end of the round a little too frequently. It came to a head at the Masters Tournament where he led after the first round but subsequently slipped back down the field.
“I basically wasn’t fit enough to cope with the challenge it presented,” said Clarke. “I was not as mentally sharp as I needed to be because I am not is as good shape as I need to be.”
Scotland’s Alastair Forsyth, Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand and South African James Kingston emerged as Clarke’s closest challengers after rounds of five under par 67.
Jaidee only received a late invitation to the Volvo PGA Championship, extended to the leader of the Asian PGA Tour Order of Merit, after last year’s Number One, Jyoti Randhawa, was unable to travel to England because of visa complications. Jaidee, a former paratrooper, made the most of his first visit to Wentworth Club with four birdies and an eagle on the 17th where he chipped in from 20 yards.
Kingston is another player making the most of his opportunity, earning his place in the field as one of the leading two players in the top 20 in the Volvo Order of Merit, not otherwise exempt. Despite not having a card for the 2003 season, Kingston is currently 17th in the Volvo Order of Merit having lost a play-off for the Qatar Masters and also finished in the top ten in the Algarve Open de Portugal, performances which have secured his card for next season.
Kingston prepared for his first Volvo PGA Championship by playing a practice round with compatriot Ernie Els, the advice from the World Number Two clearly paying dividends as made amends for a bogey and a double bogey on the 15th with eight birdies.
“Ernie knows the course pretty well and guided me round,” said Kingston. “He has played the course often enough and knows where to go and not to go. He has always been an inspiration.”
Els for his part shot an opening three under par 69, showing no ill effects of the wrist injury which forced his withdrawal from last week’s Deutsche Bank – SAP Open TPC of Europe.
The third player to finish on five under par was Forsyth who made his move with three birdies in a row from the tenth before signing off with a brace of birdies on the last two holes.
No fewer than 12 players finished on four under par, including Graeme McDowell, Jose Maria Olazábal, Justin Rose, Adam Scott and Ian Woosnam.