Stars have field day with blitz of birdies in HSBC Champions at Sheshan in Shanghai

South Africa's Brandon Grace leads by one shot as soft course sees many players - including China's Li Haotong, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Speith and more - in the hunt

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 1:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 1:52am

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Rory McIlroy finally climbed out of bed 10 pounds lighter from a bout of food poisoning and made six birdies for a 68.

Jordan Spieth returned from his longest break without touching his golf clubs. He had six birdies in a round of 68. Both felt good about their start yesterday in the HSBC Champions.

It just was not enough to be anywhere near the lead.

Barely had a breath of wind out there and the golf course is playing probably as easy as it could be
Branden Grace

Branden Grace of South Africa, a month since his sterling performance in the Presidents Cup, made birdie on half of his holes at soft, vulnerable Sheshan International for a nine-under 63. It was the lowest opening round in the 11-year history of this World Golf Championship.

And all that got him was a one-shot lead.

"Today was phenomenal out there," Grace said. "Barely had a breath of wind out there and the golf course is playing probably as easy as it could be playing. There's some low scores out there. The guys are playing some great golf, and when you play on greens like this, it helps. You just have to get the ball on the right line and it goes in. It was fun."

He made it sound simple, and the numbers backed him up.

The 78-man field produced 344 birdies and nine eagles, and it was a collective 189-under par.

China's young rising star Li Haotong shot a six-under par 66, making him three strokes behind leader Grace, but an impressive two shots clear of some big stars such as Jordan Spieth, McIlroy and Bubba Watson, who have won eight majors between them.

"Actually, today, before, my feeling wasn't that good, so I don't know why, but today I played very well. It's very exciting," Li said.

Kevin Kisner made his debut in China by playing bogey-free for a 64. He was joined by Steven Bowditch of Australia and Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark, who opened with five birdies in six holes and carded a 64.

Dustin Johnson, who won the HSBC Champions here two years ago, drilled a 3-wood over the water and onto the green at the par-5 second hole for an eagle that helped send him to a 65 along with Patrick Reed and Danny Willett, who is No 2 in the Race to Dubai.

At least McIlroy is playing. He spent two days in bed with food poisoning. His stomach was so sore and his body so stiff that he arrived earlier to get loose on the range.

"Probably a little better than I was expecting out there, to be honest," McIlroy said. "I had not been out of bed for basically 48 hours, so I was really stiff. But whenever I got out there, I felt pretty good. Thankfully, it was a decent start."

Spieth was not sure what to expect, either. He did not see his golf clubs for two weeks after returning home from South Korea at the Presidents Cup, the end of a season that brought a Masters and US Open, the FedEx Cup and PGA Tour player of the year.

For the most part, it worked out fine. "I hit some shots that looked like we were just continuing the end of the season," he said. "And I hit some that looked like I took some time off. It was a bit of both."

Agence France-Presse Associated Press