SHANGHAI – Making the first of two trips to China this month, Nick Watney made an immediate impression Thursday in the HSBC Champions by tying the course record with an 8-under 64 to build a two-shot lead.
As hundreds of cameras inside and outside the ropes tagged along to see Tiger Woods open with a 67, Watney quietly went about his business on a sunny afternoon at Sheshan International Golf Club with an accidental eagle and four straight birdies.
He was 9 under through 13 holes until settling into a string of pars and ending his round with a three-putt bogey from the fringe.
“The greens are so good that if you hit a putt on line, it’s definitely going to go in,” Watney said. “I was putting very well. Just tried to give myself as many chances as possible, and I was able to make a few.”
Watch the WGC-HSBC Champions on Golf ChannelThurs LIVE at 11 p.m. (ET) and Fri & Sat LIVE at 10 p.m. (ET)
Ryan Moore, who signed a new equipment deal Thursday, was in a group at 66 that included Shane Lowry of Ireland and Martin Kaymer of Germany, who is second in the Race to Dubai and facing a big week at this $7 million World Golf Championship.
Lin Wen-tang of Taiwan stirred the Chinese crowd with a 67, which left him tied with Woods, Anthony Kim and Paul Casey.
Still, it was Woods they came to see – and to photograph.
It started on the opening hole, with hundreds of fans surrounding the tee. Woods was flinching as he swung his 3-wood and dropped the club at impact. The shot was so short and to the right that his caddie, Steve Williams, had to walk 40 yards to find the yardage.
“The guy in the grandstand basically did almost a photo sequence,” Woods said.
It was a frenzy for the opening hour, with marshals barking at the gallery not to take pictures, and Thongchai Jaidee’s caddie having to walk up to a grassy hill and escort one photographer to the side of the ropes so his player could hit the shot.
Woods is ultra sensitive to cameras, and handled this day better than most. More frustrating was not knowing which way his ball was going, although he managed to take care of the par 5s and make enough putts for his 67.
“I got it around today,” he said. “It wasn’t my best ball-striking round for sure, but I made some putts, which was nice.”
Phil Mickelson opened with two straight birdies and made the turn in 32, although he didn’t make another birdie the rest of the way and had to settle for a 69. Defending champion Sergio Garcia made only one birdie in his round of 75.
Woods played the HSBC Champions twice, before it became a World Golf Championship, and both times he was runner-up. Mickelson is making his third straight appearance.
In some respects, Watney is the face of American involvement this week. For those who thought Americans would stay home this week because it doesn’t count as official on the PGA Tour, he is among 13 players who made the long flight.
And the leaderboard was filled with Stars & Stripes – Watney, Moore, Kim around the top, Pat Perez at 68 and Brian Gay and Jason Dufner at 69. Jerry Kelly tried playing with new grooves for the first time and ground out a 71.
“Got my first shank out of the way,” Kelly said with a laugh.
Sean O’Hair walked over to the side of the ropes to find out a World Series score. Upon learning the New York Yankees had won the title over his hometown Phillies, he made birdie on the par-5 eighth, although that didn’t keep him from a 74.
Watney signed up earlier this year for the World Cup the week of Thanksgiving at Mission Hills Golf Club near Hong Kong. He tried to find something to do in the Far East during the two-week break between the HSBC Champions and the World Cup, then figured he might as well go home to Las Vegas and get some rest.
His game appears sharp at the moment. All but two of his birdies were inside 10 feet, and he made eagle on the par-5 14th by hitting it where he wasn’t aiming. Watney meant to go toward the left side of the green, away from the flag and the water, but pushed his hybrid. It worked out fine, leaving him a 30-foot putt that he made for eagle to get his round going.
The 28-year-old American certainly has no qualms about traveling so far to play.
“The coolest thing about golf is being able to travel all around the world,” Watney said. “And to get this opportunity to come here and then back to Hong Kong, I didn’t think twice about it.”
A cab ride into Shanghai’s massive city center? That’s different. Watney went Tuesday and hung on for life as his cabbie weaved in and out of traffic and around bicycles on the road.
And what did he find to eat in Shanghai?
“We actually went in to eat Texas barbecue,” he said. “I felt a little bad about coming to China and eating Texas barbecue.”
Kim was among the last to qualify through one of two spots from the world ranking, and he almost didn’t make it. He spent all day Tuesday in Hong Kong trying to get a visa and missed the pro-am. He doesn’t know his way around Sheshan that well, which might have helped him. Aggressive by nature, he dialed back on some of the par 5s and picked up birdies.