Danny Willett surprised himself with a brilliant start to the defence of his Omega European Masters title – but the form of Ryder Cup team-mates Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan could be a concern for European captain Darren Clarke.
Willett carded an opening five-under-par 65 at Crans-sur-Sierre, finishing his round in style with an eagle from ten feet on the ninth, his final hole of the day. That left the Masters champion in a nine-way tie for second a shot behind American Paul Peterson, England’s Daniel Brooks and France’s Gregory Havret and Mike Lorenzo-Vera.
In contrast, Willett’s playing partners Fitzpatrick and Sullivan struggled to rounds of 75 and 74 respectively, with Fitzpatrick limiting the damage with two late birdies after playing his first 14 holes in seven over par.
Willett has endured a mixed campaign since claiming his first major title in April, missing the cut in three of his nine events.
The 28-year-old also snapped the putter he used at Augusta National in frustration during the US Open and could only finish 53rd in the Open, 79th in the US PGA and 37th in the Olympics.
However, the world No 11 is a big fan of this week’s venue in the Swiss mountains, where he carded a brilliant closing 65 to finish a shot ahead of Fitzpatrick last year.
“It was an early start and then I had a terrible warm-up this morning, which wasn’t the best after I’ve had two weeks off trying to work on the game,” said Willett. “I wasn’t quite expecting a 65.
“Luckily it’s one of thoseplaces where if you get it in position off the tee, you give yourself a few chances. I got the ball in play the first few holes and then felt a little bit better after six, seven holes, hit a few good golf shots and my eye fits quite nicely to this place for some reason.”
Peterson, who held off Ryder Cup wild card Thomas Pieters to win his first European Tour title in the Czech Masters a fortnight ago, carded seven birdies and a single bogey to set a clubhouse target later matched by Brooks, Havret and Lorenzo-Vera.
Meanwhile, Open champion Henrik Stenson hopes he will not need another operation as he prepares to play through the pain barrier in the FedEx Cup play-offs and Ryder Cup.
Stenson withdrew from The Barclays last week after an opening round of 74 at Bethpage Black following the recurrence of a right knee injury.
The 40-year-old Swede underwent an MRI scan to assess the extent of the damage and revealed he has suffered a tear to the meniscus, but will compete in this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston. “I had the MRI report on Monday and it’s the same one I had operated in December last year,” Stenson said.
“I have a small re-tear in the back side of the meniscus, a different place from previous, but that’s what’s causing the symptoms I guess.
“At this point I’m hoping not to have do another surgery, I’ve just got to try and see how it progresses and how much grief it gives me.”