Ernie Els’ love affair with the West Course at Wentworth Club continued in the first round of the 50th Volvo PGA Championship when a superb eight under par 64, the South African’s best score in his nine visits to the event, moved him into the lead.
The winner of the HSBC World Match Play Championship at the Surrey venue last October was in imperious form in the shadow of his Wentworth home, carding eight birdies and not shedding a single stroke to par to give himself a one stroke advantage over Stephen Dodd, Christopher Hanell and Miguel Angel Jiménez with the imposing figure of Vijay Singh a further shot behind after his opening 66, alongside Scotland's Scott Drummond.
“It was a good start to the tournament,” said Els. “I kept it in play most of the day, gave myself a lot of opportunities and made some putts. The fourth hole was the only real mistake I made all day where I three putted for a par five.
“It lingered in my mind for a while, because it is almost a give-away birdie there and to make par almost felt like I had dropped a shot. But other than that you know, I played well, got the ball up and down when I needed to, and it was a good start.”
Birdies at the second and third holes got Els off to a flying start and although events on the fourth green stalled his momentum slightly, he was soon back on form and surged to the top of the leaderboard with five birdies in six holes around the turn.
After not making birdie on the par five 17th, it looked like the South African might leave the par five 18th in similar fashion when his four iron approach landed in the rough to the left of the putting surface. But like all the best entertainers, Els saved the best for last, his pitch finding the centre of the green before his putt found the bottom of the cup from 20 feet for a closing birdie four.
One shot behind the South African, nearest challengers Stephen Dodd and Miguel Angel Jiménez also birdied the closing hole, Dodd the conventional way by two putting, Jiménez taking the Els route, pitching and putting after seeing his drive find the deep rough.
For Jiménez, the seven under par 65 was yet another fine round in a wonderful season which has already yielded three wins – the Johnnie Walker Classic, the Algarve Open de Portugal Caixa Geral de Depositos and the BMW Asian Open.
Like Els, he did not drop any shots and made seven birdies, including three in the first four holes, but his shot of the day was his wedge approach to the sixth hole which landed a mere couple of inches from being an eagle two.
“I feel confident and I feel good with myself,” said Jiménez. “You know, when I am on the golf course I am enjoying myself and I am sure that is part of the reason why I am playing so well. I try to focus on the golf course, visualise the shot and play the shot the way I see it.”
Dodd’s 65 was a welcome return to form for the Welshman who started the season well with three top 20 finishes in his first five events before slipping slightly off the boil in recent weeks, a culmination being missing the cut in the Deutsche Bank – SAP Open TPC of Europe last week.
“It was a pleasant surprise today,” he said, after putting together a flawless round which featured seven birdies. “I don’t really know why it happened but golf is like that, it changes from day to day and today I played really well. I drove the ball straight and if you are coming into the greens off the fairways then it is much easier.”
Late in the day, Hanell – winner of the Madeira Island Open in March - joined the group in second place thanks to a superb finish to his round, birdieing the 571 yard 17th hole and eagling the 531 yard 18th, after firing a five wood to 12 feet and holing the putt.
“It was a very good day,” said the Swede. “I played very well and to finish like that will make dinner taste all the better tonight. My attitude is good and, to be honest, it was good even before Madeira thanks to all the work I have been doing with my new coach Olof Skipper.”
As Els was finishing his first round and waiting to cross the first fairway to conduct his television interview with the BBC’s Steve Rider, the player teeing off on the first hole was Vijay Singh and the Fijian admitted the sight of the South African at the head of affairs as he hit his first shot was not the ideal start to his day.
“I wasn’t excited to see him there because it meant I was eight shots back and just starting the tournament!” said Singh. “But he is obviously playing well and he knows the golf course well so I wasn’t expecting any less.
“But I just thought if I go out and start chasing him I am going to have a miserable day so I just wanted to go out and play a solid round of golf which I did. My goal was to shoot about four or five under and I’m really pleased with the way I finished.”
The icing on the cake for the World Number Two was the ending to his opening round which featured birdies at both the 17th and 18th holes, two fours which were even more gratefully received considering the Fijian missed the fairway with both tee shots.
A pitch to three feet yielded the first birdie four at the 17th before a full sand wedge from 80 yards at the last – after his drive had found the fairway bunker – finished a mere three feet from the pin from where he holed out for a closing birdie four.
At the end of a superb day’s scoring on the West Course, eight players finished their first rounds on 67 including defending champion Ignacio Garrido, who had three bogeys in his round but who more than made amends with six birdies and an eagle three at the 12th.