The charitable post-Ryder Cup jolly still spread around this heather-strewn corner of Surrey on the first day of the British Masters. Spectators split the shade of umbrellas during drizzles of rain, South African Haydn Poteous salivated over a bag of biltong alongside his caddie and Marcel Siem even afforded his own the remnants of his half-chuffed cigarette. And, most importantly, so too was the lead on a windswept day at Walton Heath.
Matt Wallace, who set out early on the overcast morning before the breeze could puff, continued in the fine vein which saw him come a whisker away from clinching a captain’s pick to Paris and posted a five-under-par 67. But it was the rekindled romance, now returned rivalry, between Ryder Cup heroes Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari which stole the swathes of supporters.
Molinari is in pole position in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings and Fleetwood may have to win this week to pinch the crown from his close friend. But the Englishman, who withered on the Sunday at Le Golf National, showed no sign of that carryover comedown and carved punches beneath the bluster to equal Wallace and put himself firmly in contention while Molinari languished after a promising start.
Jocular fan-favourite Eddie Pepperell came close to pipping them after a six-under spell through five holes at the turn which included a hole-in-one at the par-3 ninth. His tee-shot clattered into the flag bouncing back almost in its own pitch mark before the top-spin propelled it into the hole like a game of golfing ping-pong. He was pegged back by a pair of bogeys but a fine birdie on the 18th ensured the amiable crew of Englishmen would share the lead on Friday morning.
World number two Justin Rose is the host of this year’s tournament and can return to the pinnacle of the rankings if he claims a top-two finish this week but instead spent much of the mid-afternoon foraging in the course’s fescue.
Rose was forced to cancel his media duties yesterday and after four successive bogeys it appeared that an early Bahaman retreat beckoned until he responded with admirable mettle to clamber back to two-over-par keeping his hopes for the competition at least somewhat sentient.
“I feel like I’m bouncing back now, but hopefully it’s not too late,” Rose said. “When I got to four over I just set a mini-goal of getting back to even by the end of Friday because I felt that would keep me in the tournament.
“Obviously in order to play well in a tournament, a lot has got to happen. It takes preparation on the front end. I’ve definitely been behind on the preparation side, but I knew shooting 74 on the first day clearly is not the start I was looking for.”
Rose’s tally was bettered by one by Europe’s equally weary looking Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn who played alongside Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood to constant cheer.
Perhaps the great Dane was preoccupied wondering which part of his body would be best served to conceal his celebratory tattoo.