Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Nick Dougherty share the lead after a glorious opening day at the BMW Championship – The Players' Flagship, as they bid to become the first English winner of the tournament since Nick Faldo’s record-breaking fourth success in 1989.
However, the Englishmen certainly did not have things their own way at a sun-kissed Wentworth Club as Andrew McLardy – a golfer who is the embodiment of The European Tour’s cosmopolitan approach - also fired a five under par 67 to make it a four-way tie at the top.
If McLardy, a Zimbabwe-born golfer of Scottish parents who now plays under the flag of South Africa, was the surprise package with his faultless performance over the remodelled West Course, the sight of Casey among the frontrunners was almost to be expected given a run of excellent form that has brought top five finishes in each of his last four European Tour events.
In fact, the 28 year old produced the most arresting finish of the day to force himself among the pacesetters once again, having concluded his round with a birdie four at the 17th and an eagle three at the 18th.
“Typically this has not been a golf course I’ve played well. I think I’m excited about the changes, maybe they have brought a fresh view for me, and maybe that’s what I needed. I’ve just continued to play nice, solid golf and here I am in the mix again,” commented Casey.
Alongside him compatriot Donald, the World Number Ten, was accuracy personified, hitting all 18 greens in regulation during his bogey-free round while the third Englishman at the head of affairs, Dougherty, picked up all his shots over the back nine and was left thanking his father Roger for a bit of straight-talking advice.
“He’s always been hard on me but obviously he is the reason I’m playing golf to this level at my age. I was really not confident when I left Ireland last week and dad came out and he made it simple, which makes you think how easy the game is. Just hit it down the fairway, knock it on the green and make the putt. I mean, how hard is it, really? That’s how dad looks at it,” said Dougherty.
“You watch the examples of Retief (Goosen), Luke (Donald), Ernie (Els) and they do that: just knock it down the fairway and knock it on the greens. It’s very, very basic. So dad came down, simplified what I was thinking about on the course.”
Dougherty went on to reveal that he owed his father a lot more than just a thank you for the advice – namely a car.
Having driven down from Liverpool to visit his son in Richmond, Surrey, Dougherty senior was encouraged to park his car in his offspring’s new two-tier garage and belatedly found the space was too small. “He crushed it yesterday,” laughed Dougherty. “I suppose my round is a little pay back for him.”
Donald made light of the changes to the West Course with a brilliantly controlled display that saw him birdie the second, sixth, seventh, 14th and 18th holes. “I think the pick and place helped and the soft conditions. It was target golf today. I think that is the first time this year I have hit all 18 greens in regulation,” he said.
Ironically, Ernie Els, the man who masterminded the remodeling of the famous Burma Road course, fell foul of his own changes as he finished among a group of 11 players, containing amongst others José Maria Olazábal of Spain, the former Masters Champion, and England's Ian Poulter, on three under par 69.
The South African World Number Six twice found bunkers. On the sixth, which he has lengthened, he found sand with a driver when he used to lay-up with a four iron. On the ninth he went into a new trap.
“It was a good test but if you played properly today, you’d shoot under par. The old course, under conditions like these, I think you would have seen a 64. Today was your scoring opportunity,” said Els, reflecting in part on the fact that the tees at the third and sixth holes were moved forward to compensate for the overnight deluge that soaked the West Course.
In fifth place, after rounds of four under par 68, are Ireland’s Peter Lawrie, Argentine Angel Cabrera, the defending champion, England’s David Howell and Raphaël Jacquelin of France.
However, the last word went to McLardy, who overcame a heavy cold and the despondency that comes with missing the cut in three of his last four events, to grab a share of the lead with three of English golf’s brightest lights.
The man with the cosmopolitan heritage produced a fine display tee to green and got a vital piece of luck with his 40ft birdie putt at the 16th.
“It’s great not to make a bogey, it’s been a while, but I have been playing well for the last couple of weeks and missing the cuts by one or two. It comes down to a couple of putts. Today I had one lucky putt on 16 that hit the back of the hole, jumped up and went in. That was a two shot difference for me, birdie as opposed to bogey.”
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