SHANGHAI - PGA champion Keegan Bradley shot a 7-under 65 on Thursday to take a two-stroke lead after the opening round of the HSBC Champions, the final World Golf Championship of the year.
Bo Van Pelt, coming off a big win last week in Malaysia, twice ran off three straight birdies on the course at Sheshan International and joined the Swedish duo of Alex Noren and Fredrik Jacobson at 67.
The group at 68 included K.J. Choi and David Toms. Defending champion Francesco Molinari was challenging the lead late in his round as a light rain began to fall, but a double bogey-bogey finish sent him to a 70.
Rory McIlroy, with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki following him inside the ropes, made two late birdies to salvage a 70. McIlroy is coming off a win last week at the Shanghai Masters tournament.
Bradley played alongside Lee Westwood and Adam Scott, each of whom had a 69.
“Every week, I’m amazed at who I’m around,” said Bradley, who secured his PGA Tour card only a year ago. “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.”
The rewards might not be over yet.
The PGA Tour delayed sending out its postseason awards ballots when it realized the HSBC Champions, which it does not treat equal to the other WGCs, still counts as an official win if a tour member takes the trophy.
A win by Bradley would be his third of the year—one of them a major, another a world championship—and it might be enough to merit strong consideration as player of the year, which is decided by a vote of PGA Tour members.
England’s Luke Donald is considered a heavy favorite with two wins, the money title and the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average. Donald could not come to Shanghai because his wife is expecting their second child.
“You know, all I’m trying to do is win this golf tournament,” Bradley said. “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 those fall where they fall.”
Bradley played bogey-free on a course that was soft from relentless rain the day before, though it still had enough bite if players weren’t careful. Graeme McDowell, coming off an embarrassing weekend in Spain in which he failed to break 80 on the weekend, had seven birdies in a round that was marred by a double bogey on the 17th.
Italian teenager Matteo Manassero made only five pars in his round of 82. England’s Tom Lewis, who won the Portugal Masters last month in his third event as a pro, opened with a 78.
Bradley moved to the top of the leaderboard 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.
Toms holed out for eagle on the par-4 16th, which is 288 yards and tempts the big hitters to reach the green. But the best shot of the day might have belonged to Westwood, who hit a 5-wood from 250 yards on the par-5 14th and saw it clear the water and hit the pin before settling a few feet away for an eagle.
Westwood lost by one shot to Molinari in a great duel at Sheshan a year ago and knows his way around the course.
McIlroy, meanwhile, is relying on his memories of a 63 two years ago to lift his spirits. Coming off a $2 million win last week across town at Lake Maleren, the Northern Irishman three-putted for bogey on the opening hole and twice watched short birdie putts horseshoe around the cup.
Following along was Wozniacki, the No. 1 player in women’s tennis, asking questions about a game she is just starting to learn.
Even 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.
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.