Lee Westwood didn't feel as though he had to prove why he was No. 1 in the world. With one quality shot after another Thursday in the WGC-HSBC Champions, he sure served up a reminder.
Westwood closed with two strong birdies for a 6-under 66, leaving him one shot behind his European Ryder Cup teammate Francesco Molinari in pristine weather at Sheshan International.
2010 HSBC CHAMPIONS
Tiger Woods, no longer No. 1 for the first time in more than five years, made one improbable par and three straight birdies on his way to a 68 that left him very much in the mix of this World Golf Championship.
The surprise, to some degree, was Westwood.
It was only his second stroke-play competition in three months, and only his second round of golf since Oct. 10. His mistake wasn't even his own doing, as he found a clump of mud on his ball in the seventh fairway, leading to a bogey.
Otherwise, it was the kind of round expected from the world's No. 1 player.
"I don't think I need to reinforce why I'm No. 1 in the world," Westwood said. "I think you get there as a result of having good performances. But it's nice to go out there and show everybody that there is a particular reason why I got to that stage."
The Asian influence in the tournament regarded as "Asia's major" shone through behind Yuta Ikeda of Japan, who bogeyed his last hole and shot 67, and rising Korean star Seung-Yul Noh, who also had a 67. They were joined by Henrik Stenson, coming off his worst season and seeing some signs of progress.
Luke Donald of England joined Woods at 68, while defending champion Phil Mickelson had a 69. PGA champion Martin Kaymer, who has gone to No. 3 in the world, opened with a 72.
Westwood, Woods, Kaymer and Mickelson all can go to No. 1 in the world this week.
Molinari tried to take some of the spotlight off the battle of the world ranking. He turned a potential bogey into a birdie on the third hole when his approach went over the green, leaving him a quick chip down the hill. He chipped in, the start of four straight birdies that carried him to the opening 65 that put him atop the leaderboard.
"Everything seems in the right place at the moment," Molinari said.
Perhaps most inspiring for Woods is that he was coming off his longest layoff -- four weeks -- since he returned to golf at the Masters. It looked as though he had never left. In his previous competition, Woods was 9 under through 15 holes in his victory over Molinari in Ryder Cup singles at Celtic Manor.
He wasn't that sharp, but he was a little lucky.
Already 1 over for the tournament, he drove into a cluster of trees and bushes on the 15th. He figured he had no hope until caddie Steve Williams told Woods when he got to his ball, "I think we might have a shot."
The ball was behind some hedges, with sprigs sticking up around his ball. With a 4-iron, Woods played away from the sprigs, through a gap in the hedges, shaping the ball from left to right to get it just left of the green. From there, he navigated a tricky, downhill chip to about 3 feet for the most unlikely par.
"I was able to build some momentum from there," Woods said.
He birdied the next hole with a sand wedge to 2 feet, then turned it on over the back nine, starting with a 5-wood from 247 yards that settled about 18 feet from the cup for a two-putt birdie. He birdied the next two holes, added a 20-foot birdie on the seventh and ended his round with a 6-foot par save.
"I hit a lot of good golf shots," Woods said. "I felt like I was able to control my distance well coming into the greens, and also putted really well today."
Westwood, still trying to manage an injury to his calf that affects his right ankle, had not played a round of golf since Oct. 10 at the Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews. His expectations were nil. The golf was quite good.
"I just went out there with a pretty clear mind," Westwood said. "I was a little rusty in places with my scoring, but I putted nicely. All in all, I think I probably deserved about a 66."
He did just about everything well. Westwood hit a solid drive and a 6-iron to 15 feet for birdie on the 15th hole, one of the strongest holes at Sheshan. He hit driver on the par-4 16th that pitched about 10 feet from the hole and trundled over the green, but escaped with birdie by holing an 18-foot putt.
And like Woods, he was helped by a par. Westwood pulled his 5-wood into the water on the par-5 second, but hit a nice pitch and made the par putt, then finished in style with a 5-wood just left of the green on the par-5 eighth, and a 25-foot birdie putt on his last hole.