CASARES, Spain – Lee Westwood produced a blitz of birdies to thrash Anders Hansen on the opening day of the World Match Play Championship and send a message to the two men trying to supplant him as world No. 1.
Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer, who both could leap to the top of the rankings by winning the tournament on the Costa del Sol, also eased to opening-round victories at the Finca Cortesin course on Thursday but Westwood’s 6-and-5 rout of Hansen in Group A stood out on a day of few surprises.
Westwood started with a bogey on the par-4 first but found his range with the putter to make six birdies between the fourth and 11th holes, overwhelming his Danish opponent.
Westwood didn’t compete in last week’s Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass, branded by some as the fifth major, to maintain his freshness for not only the World Match Play but also subsequent tournaments this summer.
Considering the start he has made, that looks to be a wise decision, although there are tougher tests ahead in southern Spain this week as he looks to win the tournament for the second time. His first came in 2000.
“I feel fresh, feel good coming into this week, which is tough and demanding,” said Westwood, who credits his newfound stamina and strength to a strict fitness regime he began four years ago. “I had such a busy time in the first part of the year, I was going to need a break at some stage to just sit down and do nothing, and recharge.”
Westwood plays Australia’s Aaron Baddeley on Friday in his second group match.
Donald, who beat Kaymer to win the Accenture World Match Play in Arizona in February, again showed his pedigree in the one-on-one format by cruising past Ryan Moore, 4 and 3, in Group B.
Birdies at the third, fourth and seventh holes put the second-ranked Donald 3 up, and two more at No. 14 and No. 15 saw off the challenge of the only American player in the 24-man field.
“I haven’t had too many disappointments in match play. I enjoy the format and I’ve been very successful in it,” said Donald, who has finished in the top 10 in 13 of his last 14 events. “I continued the form I’ve been playing the last few months. I’d put it in the solid category.”
Donald needs to win the tournament and hope Westwood doesn’t make the final if he is to climb to No. 1 for the first time. Kaymer, meanwhile, requires Westwood to be eliminated before the semifinals to return to the top of the rankings.
The third-ranked German was 2 down to Y.E. Yang by the 11th but won the next four holes to complete a 2-and-1 win on the 17th.
Only two players lost to lower-ranked opponents on a day of few genuine shocks at the hilly, par-72 course.
Ninth-ranked Paul Casey lost, 3 and 1, to Spain’s Alvaro Quiros, the world No. 26, in a battle of the big hitters and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel was thrashed, 6 and 5, by Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Schwartzel is trying to emulate his fellow South Africans Gary Player and Ernie Els, who won the tournament 12 times between them. But he bogeyed the opening two holes and failed to match the consistency of Jimenez, who was born in nearby Malaga but is playing this course for the first time.
Jimenez didn’t drop a shot for the entire round.
“I just kept playing solid – pars, pars, birdies, pars. That’s the game today,” said Jimenez, who went 3 up after five holes and never looked back.
Schwartzel must avoid defeat in his second Group G match – against Johan Edfors on Friday – to have a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages this weekend.
Under the tournament’s new format, two players from each of the eight three-man groups go through to the last 16.
Elsewhere, No. 5-ranked Graeme McDowell, the U.S. Open champion, defeated British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, 3 and 1, and fellow Northern Irish player Rory McIlroy also won, beating Retief Goosen by 1 hole.
Ross Fisher, who defeated Anthony Kim in the 2009 final, starts the defense of his title on Friday.