Bob MacIntyre, the sole Scot in the field, bounced back brilliantly from having to take a penalty drop following his first-ever shot in a World Golf Championship to make a promising start in the HSBC Champions in China.
On a day when Haotong Li thrilled the home fans at Sheshan International in Shanghai by carding an eight-under-par 64 to become the first Chinese player to ever lead a WGC event, MacIntyre showed his class by overcoming a potentially-damaging opening hole.
Starting at the tenth in the same group as American duo Billy Horschel and Kevin Kisner, the 23-year-old Oban left-hander found trouble in a clump of bushes with his drive and, after deeming it unplayable, he took a penalty drop.
Unable to find the green with his third shot, that led to MacIntyre starting with a double-bogey 6, but the Scottish No 1 wasn’t on the back foot for long as he then produced some of the sparkling golf that we’ve seen from him throughout his rookie season on the European Tour.
He birdied the 12th and 18th to be out in level-par 36 before picking up shots at the second and ninth, where he holed a nice putt, coming home to sign for a two-under 70, an effort that left him sitting joint-26th in the star-studded field for the $10.25 million tournament.
On a day when he enjoyed being in the “headline” half of the draw, MacIntyre outscored Kisner, a WGC winner in the Dell Technologies Match Play event in Texas earlier in the year, by two shots and also Open champion Shane Lowry, as well as two Masters winners in Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed.
“It was a rough way to start the day, but I could only get better after the first hole ...well, at least that’s what I was saying to myself,” admitted MacIntyre afterwards.
On his recovery, he added: “I’m looking forward to tomorrow as there were great signs out there today. Also, Billy and Kevin were great to play with today as they made me feel comfortable and had a good laugh on the way round.”
Li, who first gave a glimpse of his star potential when recording a top-10 finish in this event at the venue in 2015, carded an eagle and seven birdies to lead by a shot from Victor Perez, the Dundee-based Frenchman who claimed his maiden European Tour title with victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship earlier this month.
“Today is a pretty good start,” admitted Li, a two-time winner on the European circuit. “Obviously it would be a great joy for Chinese golfers and Chinese golf fans to have a Chinese player winning a WGC-HSBC Champions here in China, but anything could happen over the next three days, so I don’t want to think too much about it.”
Perez, who moved to Scotland to be with his girlfriend Abigail, who is a dental student, marked his WGC debut in style with two eagles - at the eighth and 14th - as he continued to ride the wave from his breakthrough success in the Dunhill event at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.
“It was a great day for me and I am very pleased with how I played,” said the 27-year-old. “I did a lot of things well today and I’m obviously in a great position after day one. Obviously the end of the year has been going quite well since the win at Dunhill. A couple of good weeks in Italy and France. It can always be better, but after win, you could go either way. You could really ride it or have a little bit of a downfall from it.”
England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, defending champion Xander Schauffele, Australian Adam Scott and South Korea’s Sungjae Im were at six under, a shot clear of World No 2 Rory McIlroy, Austrian Matthias Schwab and Canadian Corey Conners. McIlroy came home in 31 to fly up the leaderboard, with Schwab birdieing four of his last five in a late move of his own.
“I think it’s momentum,” said McIlroy. “Sometimes you feel it a little more than other times and on that back nine today Itried to sort of ride that momentum to the very end. It would have been nice to pick up one more, had a good chance for birdie, but after the start today, to shoot five under, I’m not complaining.
“The last few tournaments I’ve played, I’ve had a bad opening round and then been trying to play catch up. At least now, I’m right in the thick of things from the start, which is a better place to be.”
South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen made the 28th hole-in-one of the European Tour season on the sixth as he got to four-under alongside Mexican Abraham Ancer, England’s Danny Willett and Zhang Xinjun from China.