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Third title on tap? Bradley leads WGC

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SHANGHAI – PGA champion Keegan Bradley cares more about counting birdies than votes. He flew halfway around the world with the intention of winning a World Golf Championship, not any kind of an award.

Whatever the case, he sure made this PGA Tour player-of-the-year discussion a lot more interesting Thursday.

Bradley did most of his damage on the par 5s at Sheshan International with three birdies and an eagle, which carried him to a 7-under 65 and a two-shot lead after the first round of the HSBC Champions.

“A very rewarding round,” Bradley said.

Bo Van Pelt extended his awesome Asian adventure. Coming off a six-shot win in Malaysia last week, Van Pelt had 67 and was tied for second with the Swedish duo of Alexander Noren and Fredrik Jacobson.

The PGA Tour felt it should wait until after the HSBC Champions to send out its postseason awards ballot because this tournament counts as official if a PGA Tour member were to win. If there was one player considered a threat to Luke Donald as player of the year, it would be Bradley. Winning in Shanghai would give him a Tour-leading three victories, including a major and a World Golf Championship.

Bradley only laughed when asked if his opening 65 was enough to make Donald nervous.

“Maybe,” he said. “You know, all I’m trying to do is win this golf tournament. I know there’s a lot on the line, and there’s some awards to be won. I’m sure Luke is not very interested in this tournament. I’m sure he’s sleeping. But I hope to keep playing well, and let those fall where they fall.”

Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, finished his PGA Tour season in style. He closed with a 64 to win Disney for his second win of the year, giving him the money title and Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average. However, he was kept from playing the HSBC Champions because his wife is expecting their second child any day.

The award is determined by the players, who suddenly are paying a lot more attention.

“There’s only two people in the race as far as I’m concerned – Luke and Keegan,” Adam Scott said. “If Keegan were to win this week, it’s probably a tough decision, but I would vote for Keegan. It’s a major, a WGC and a PGA Tour event in his rookie year. That’s going to be a better year. A major has to hold some weight, and then you add a World Golf Championship.

“Winning the money title and scoring average is nice and an incredible achievement,” Scott said. “But winning tournaments is what it’s about. Keegan would have my vote.”

Nick Watney said he already has made up his mind. No matter who wins this week, he’s voting for Donald.

“I feel as though Luke has earned it,” Watney said.

Bradley isn’t too wrapped up in the discussion quite yet. He found satisfaction in being the only player in the 78-man field without a bogey. And while his length off the tee was an advantage, he made three birdies on the par 5s with a wedge in his hand. He also had another rookie moment when he found himself in awe of playing alongside Lee Westwood and Scott, even as he outplayed both of them.

“For me, every week I’m amazed at who I’m around,” Bradley said. “And to be in a group like that in this tournament, and to play like that on this course is very rewarding and it means a lot to me. … I know I say this a lot. But I feel like I have to pinch myself out here, because of what’s going on and just how much fun I’m having doing it.”

It’s already been a dream season for the 25-year-old rookie, and it might not be over just yet.

Even so, the last WGC event of the year is just getting started.

David Toms holed out a wedge on the 16th hole for eagle and Justin Rose had two eagles to join the group at 68. Westwood and Scott were each at 69, with Westwook nearly making an albatross when his 5-wood bounced off the pin on the par-5 14th and settled a few feet away for a tap-in birdie.

Rory McIlroy, with Caroline Wozniacki following him inside the ropes, made two late birdies to salvage a 70.

Bradley took advantage with one booming tee shot after another. He opened with a birdie after a wedge to 3 feet on No. 10 and drilled a hybrid 3-iron over the water to 20 feet on the 18th for an eagle. He had three birdies and an eagle on the par 5s, and kept bogeys off his card with a nice up-and-down from the bunker on No. 7 and a two-putt from some 60 feet on his final hole.

Van Pelt got off to a sluggish start and then continued his amazing play in Asia. He won the Asia Pacific Championship last week by six shots, and is 28 under par in his five rounds during this two-week Asian excursion.

McIlroy is coming off a $2 million win last week in the Shanghai Masters exhibition across town at Lake Maleren. There wasn’t an immediate carryover, as he three-putted for bogey on the opening hole and twice watched short birdie putts horseshoe around the cup.

Without being here, Donald is a focal point in two respects.

He still figures to get plenty of votes for PGA Tour Player of the Year, although Bradley could affect that. Donald also is trying to become the first player to win the money title on the PGA and European tours, and he has a $1.8 million lead in Europe over McIlroy.

Despite opening with a 70, McIlroy was only five shots behind with three rounds ahead of him and was not at all discouraged.

“It’s a huge event anyway, but for me, it’s a big event in the course of the season just because I feel like if I can play well this week, I can eat into Luke’s lead a little bit,” McIlroy said.

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