Russell Knox starts Shanghai world title defence with 66

Russell Knox hits a tee shot on the ninth hole.  Picture: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Russell Knox hits a tee shot on the ninth hole. Picture: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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It’s a tall order. Tiger Woods, after all, is the only player to have achieved the feat. But, as starts go and particularly those made by him, it was job done for Russell Knox in his bid to make a successful defence of a World Golf 
Championship.

Taking up where he had left off when becoming the first Scot to claim one of those coveted titles on the same course 12 months ago, the 31-year-old produced a flawless first-round effort at Sheshan International in the HSBC 
Champions.

A six-under-par 66 to sit joint third, two shots off the lead, held by Swede Rikard Karlberg, was good reason for Knox to feel pleased with himself. As the defending champion, the last thing he wanted to do was start badly. Four birdies in a row on his front nine followed by two more gains coming home ensured that certainly wasn’t going to 
happen.

“The first round is never my strongest so I’m delighted to get off to a flyer and shoot six under,” admitted Knox, the world No 20, after featuring in the best scoring group of the day as his two playing partners, Rickie Fowler and Paul Casey, signed for 65 and 67 respectively to make the trio a combined 18-under-par.

“I didn’t put any pressure on myself, but you only get once shot at your first defence, so I want to make sure I have a good time over the next three days,” added the Florida-based Invernesian. “The conditions were just like this on Sunday last year – very dark and dreich, as the Scots would say, with a little mist and rain. The course played long today, which is fine for me. If it’s lift, clean and place, as long as I’m on the fairway, I can compete around here.”

Fowler, the 2015 Scottish Open champion, covered the back nine in 31 and completed a flawless performance – it left him sitting second on his own – with birdies on the second and ninth, where he holed from around 20 feet.

“It’s always nice to start with seven under par, I’m pleased with that,” admitted the American afterwards. “I knew with the soft conditions they were going to try to tuck some 
pins. It was going to be very scoreable if you drove it in 
the fairways and I was able to do that.”

Fowler added: “I played very well tee to green and that made things a lot easier from there. It was a stress-free, simple round.

“Russell (Knox) and Paul (Casey) have been playing well and we enjoyed each other’s presence. We had a good time out there and fed off each other a bit.”

Karlberg started with four birdies, added five more before dropping his only shot of the day at the 18th as he grabbed the lead on his WGC debut. “It was just one of those days; it was a walk in the park,” said the 2015 Italian Open champion. “I committed to a lot of shots and hit them perfectly, just as I wanted.

“With the wet conditions you just need to be aggressive, bomb to the tee and bomb to the pin, and that’s what I did today. I had great distance control. I hit great shots all day except the last hole. My drive there didn’t fade and I ended up in the bunker and I had a little sand behind the ball. Unfortunately I didn’t really catch it and ended up in the rough, short right, in the water.”

Having found the same wet spot earlier in the day and also run up a 6, Rory McIlroy, the world No 3, had to settle for a 71 as he chases the victory he feels will be necessary to have a chance of winning the Race to Dubai for the third year 
running.

Masters champion Danny Willett, who leads the Order of Merit title contest, battled back from being five over to card a 74 while Open champion Henrik Stenson, the other player in the Race to Dubai mix, had a 69.