WENTWORTH, England – Danny Willett marked his debut in the BMW PGA Championship with a course record 6-under 65 at Wentworth on Thursday.
The Englishman’s round early in the day suggested that Ernie Els’ 6.5 million pound ($9.4 million) winter spend on redesigning the historic West Course to ‘give it teeth’ had not succeeded.
Yet, out of the 159 other starters, only Australian left-hander Richard Green with six birdies in a 66 managed to get within one stroke of the leader.
And perhaps of more significance, looking forward to Sunday’s presentation of the $938,000 winner’s check, the name of England’s Ross Fisher was among a group of four players who shot 67s.
Although Fisher is a product of Wentworth’s charity foundation and has played the course since he was a teenager, his reputation as a long hitter like Willett could prove vital.
Els’ new design, which features cavernous bunkers around every green and water in front of the 8th and 18th greens, has put many of the greens out of reach of the shorter players.
Indeed, Els was bogey free and 3 under when he attempted to reach the final par-5 green in two and ended up with his own ball in the water.
But Willett used his strength to good advantage to total nine birdies.
“The course was soft and playing long,” said the 22-year-old Yorkshireman.
“I never have to hit five irons to reach par fours, its normally a seven at most and often a wedge, but three times in the round I had to get the five iron out at the 1st, 9th and 15th, all par fours,” Willett said.
Fisher, who last year finished runner-up to Paul Casey, managed to birdie the 18th with an astute third shot from the fairway short of the water.
But he was unsure whether the drastic course changes would prove popular to golf supporters.
“I prefer the 18th how it was,” he said. “It looks a stunning hole with the lake but that’s just with my eyes. Whether its going to create more drama than in previous years I don’t know.
“Previously I liked that hole as it was when you saw people running the ball up to the green. Now you actually have to fly the ball onto the green. And now there’s only a few guys who will go for it in two.
“Obviously the designer has gone for it in two and hit it in the water whereas I have been here 16 years, played smart and made four.”
The course however proved frustrating for Europe’s No. 1 Lee Westwood, who is looking this weekend to challenge Phil Mickelson’s place as the world No. 2.
After having trouble in a greenside bunker beside the short par-2 10th hole and running up a double bogey, Westwood, who shot a 1-under 70, marched onto the 11th tee and angrily kicked one of the markers.
Minutes earlier, having failed to get out of a bunker beside the same green at the first attempt, Rory McIlroy bent the shaft of his lob wedge in frustration and was unable to use his club for the rest of his round. He shot 74.
Much later in the day, Steve Webster of England got to 5 under with a birdie at the 16th, and with two par 5s to finish he could have caught or even overtaken Willett. But after a bogey at the 17th he dropped back into the pack of players on 4 under.