Eagle eye poster boy Rickie Fowler on target as Rikard Karlberg leads WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai

The American cards a blemish-free seven-under-par 65 to lie one shot off the lead held by the Swede at Sheshan International Golf Club

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 6:10pm

The publicity posters plastered all over Shanghai for the WGC-HSBC Champions portray Rickie Fowler as a superhero “Eagle Eye”, and the US Ryder Cup star lived up to his billing on Thursday.

Sporting a new mohawk under his trademark broad-peaked cap, the 27-year-old US Ryder Cup star proved a cut above all but one player as he fired a blemish-free seven-under-par 65 to lie one shot off the lead at Sheshan International Golf Club.

Sweden’s Rikard Karlberg leads on eight-under after a damp first round of the US$9.5 million event dubbed “Asia’s Major”, where Rory McIlroy’s putter proved as cool as the conditions.

The FedEx Cup champion and world number three carded a steady one-under 71 with just two birdies and a solitary bogey.

“I feel I hit the ball well,” said McIlroy, who was solid from tee to green but just could not hole a putt of any length.

“Greens are soft and obviously there’s a lot of footprints. I feel I did everything okay. I just didn’t really get any momentum going.”

McIlroy wasn’t alone among the favourites to struggle as world number two and US Open champion Dustin Johnson toiled to a two-over 74, as did Masters champion Danny Willett, while US PGA Champion Jimmy Walker had a day to forget with a six-over 78.

There were no such woes for the well-travelled Fowler, whose last tournament win came in Abu Dhabi in January and who has also recorded victories in South Korea and Scotland.

Having started on the 10th, the colourful American was three-under when he left himself short of the green at the treacherous par three 17th.

But he made the chip look ridiculously easy for his birdie and almost holed another chip at 18 leading to a tap-in birdie.

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“Yeah, I was trying to have a superhero performance today,” Fowler said.

Fowler was playing with Russell Knox (66) and Paul Casey (65) in a three-ball that ripped round Sheshan with a combined score of 18-under par.

Watch: Eagle Eye Rickie Fowler

“Both of those guys have been playing well,” said Fowler. “We enjoyed each other’s presence, fed off each other a bit. I don’t think there’s a threesome that beat us today.”

Knox pulled off a massive Shanghai surprise a year ago by recording his maiden PGA Tour win and the Scot carried on where he left off with the highlight being four birdies in a row from the 14th to the 17th.

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“When you’re playing with Rickie Fowler, nobody cares if I’m defending champion. So that always takes a little pressure off,” said Knox, who shares third place with American Daniel Berger and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.

Watch: Rickie Fowler chip in

Karlberg, a former Asian Tour rookie of the year, showed no nerves in his first WGC event appearance as he galloped away from a field containing 40 of the world’s top 50 players.

A birdie at the 16th took the world number 87 to nine under par, but his tee shot at the short 17th disappeared down a steep bank needing a great chip from thick rough to save par.

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But when a second errant tee shot in a row found a fairway bunker on the par five 18th it led to his only bogey of the day.

“I just had a couple of uncommitted shots at the end,” said Karlberg. “On 18 my drive didn’t fade and I ended up in the bunker. Apart from that everything was easy, a walk in the park, just one of those days.”

Watch: Rikard Karlberg take the lead

China’s Zhang Xinjun, who is set to feature at next week’s PGA Tour China Series Clearwater Bay Open in Hong Kong, leads the mainland challenge at four-under-par alongside four others including Spain’s Sergio Garcia.