SHANGHAI – The only three Americans in the 78-man field were easy to find Thursday in the European Tour’s BMW Masters.
Just look at the top of the leaderboard.
Luke Guthrie packed a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and flew halfway around the world for one week, hopeful he would at least broaden his experience by playing golf on foreign soil. He got more than he expected. The 23-year-old American took 19 putts – one short of the European Tour record – chipped in twice and had a 7-under 65.
Not only did Guthrie have a three-shot lead, his score was more than 9.67 shots better than the course average.
"It was one of the better rounds I've ever played," Guthrie said.
Even more surprising was the guy right behind him – John Daly, playing for the first time since surgery in July to repair the torn tendon in his right elbow. After a strict rehabilitation of icing the elbow and drinking enough chocolate milk to put on 15 pounds, Daly navigated the 30 mph wind at Lake Malaren without a bogey for a 68.
"I gained a little bit of weight, but when you take 15 or 16 weeks off, you're going to," Daly said.
His mother once told him that Vitamin D milk was cure for any ailment. Adding the chocolate was Daly's idea.
Another shot back was Peter Uihlein, the only American who didn't seem out of place at this European Tour event in Shanghai.
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Uihlein already has won on the European Tour this year, was runner-up twice and is 10th on the money list. He hasn't forgotten his New England roots. Uihlein watched the Boston Red Sox take a 3-0 lead in the World Series before he headed to the practice range, and perhaps it was no coincidence that, upon learning of the 8-1 win, Uihlein played 5-under the rest of the way for a 69.
"It's a good day," he said.
Uihlein ended it with an exquisite flop shot from behind the 18th green in which he let the wind hold it up in the air, and used the slope to bring it back to tap-in range.
The biggest surprise was the wind, which ripped across Lake Malaren all day and made the greens particularly fast, firm and crispy. Only 13 players managed to break par, a group that included Graeme McDowell (70) and Rory McIlroy (71).
"I've never witnessed wind like this in China," McIlroy said.
Everything was new to Guthrie, who played in California and Las Vegas the last two weeks to start the new 2013-14 season on the PGA Tour. It makes little sense for him to travel all the way to China for one week before returning to America to play two more PGA Tour events.
But after his debut at the British Open this year – a missed cut – Guthrie was determined to expand his horizons. He flew from Las Vegas to Shanghai, arriving Tuesday and never leaving the hotel. He shook off the jet lag during the pro-am on Wednesday, and he produced a score that no one imagined on such a blustery day.
Guthrie drinks Mountain Dew to a fault, and he couldn't find any in Scotland. He brought his own stash to Shanghai, which makes him a quick study.
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"This is my first time over in China and Asia, and I just wanted to challenge myself to come travel abroad and get used to this, and just keep gaining experiences and get better at becoming a global player," he said. "And it's nice to get off to a good start today."
More important than the caffeine-laced soda was his short game. Guthrie had about a 25-foot putt on the 10th hole when he realized it was the longest putt he had faced all day. And then he realized he had one-putted every green on the front nine.
What skewed the statistics was his three-hole stretch in the middle of the back nine that built some separation – a routine up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 13th, pitching a 25-yard shot over the bunker and into the cup for an unlikely birdie on the 14th, and then using the wind to hold up a flop shot from beyond the green at the par-5 15th. Once it landed, the ball ran toward the cup like a putt and dropped for eagle.
"The leader is 7 under, level par is 14th. That kind of sums it up, really," McDowell said. "Luke Guthrie is obviously a hell of a player. I don't know a lot about him except that he's good. And that was a great performance from him. Another windy day ahead tomorrow, so it's just a case of trying to jockey for position."
The BMW Masters is the first of four tournaments called "The Final Series," all with at least $7 million in prize money as European Tour members make their way to Dubai for the end of the season. McDowell is trying to chase down Henrik Stenson in the Race to Dubai.
Stenson, who played with McDowell and McIlroy, opened with a 72.
Paul Casey, Thongchai Jaidee and Wales Open winner Gregory Bourdy were among those at 70. McIlroy had a pair of three-putt bogeys – one of them from 10 feet early in the round – but was pleased with his play from tee-to-green. McDowell said he was looking like "the Rory McIlroy of 2011, 2012," alluding to when the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland won two majors, each by eight shots.
"It's a bit ominous," he said of the ease in McIlroy's swing.
Coming off a tie for second in South Korea last week, McIlroy was pleased with the quality of his golf, and with his position.
"It could have been better," he said. "But on a day like today, it's just good to keep yourself there, or thereabouts."