SHANGHAI (AP) – The conditions were so soft Thursday in the HSBC Champions that Branden Grace was not surprised by his 9-under 63. And he knew there would be plenty of other players stacked up right behind him.
Grace did his part at Sheshan International by making birdies on half of his holes, including his last one at the par-4 ninth. That gave him a one-shot lead over Thorbjorn Olesen, Steven Bowditch and Kevin Kisner, the American playing in China for the first time.
"Barely had a breath of wind out there and the golf course is playing probably as easy as it could be playing," Grace said. "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."
The South African made it sound simple, and it felt that way to most everyone.
Thirty players were at 68 or better, a group that included Jordan Spieth, defending champion Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, who finally made it to the course after battling food poisoning all week.
Dustin Johnson, who won this World Golf Championship two years ago the last time he was here, drilled a 3-wood over the water and onto the green for an eagle on the par-5 second hole on his way to a 67. Danny Willett, second to McIlroy in the European Tour's Race to Dubai playoffs, and Patrick Reed also were at 67.
Only 13 players in the 78-man field were over par. That included Adam Scott, who could have been one shot worse if rules officials had not deducted a penalty shot because of the wrong ruling given to Scott.
Players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls because of rain in the forecast, and only after Scott did that short of the sixth green did he look back and realize his ball had been in a slight cut of rough. Scott was told to replay his shot, which was the wrong ruling. Officials referred to a decision based on equity that allowed only for the two-shot penalty, and thus he kept his double bogey. Not that it helped his round. He shot 75.
Everyone else was going forward as quickly as possible.
Olesen opened with five birdies in six holes and reached 6 under with another birdie on the par-5 eighth when he started wondering how low he could go.
"All sorts of things when through my mind," he said. "I thought, `Yeah, here we can go really, really low.' I hit a couple of bad shots. I made bogey on the par 5, which was a little bit silly. Overall, I'm really happy with the round."
Grace went 5-0 in the Presidents Cup last month in South Korea and nearly led the International team to a rare victory. He returned to a reasonable week in Malaysia, then resumed his brand of golf by firing at flags and holing enough putts to post the lowest start ever in this World Golf Championship.
He is No. 6 in the Race to Dubai with three events remaining.
"I think Presidents Cup was a big boost for me," Grace said. "Coming into these events, I know one good week can change everything. Give it a last, final push. There's a lot still to play for."
McIlroy said he lost 10 pounds this week because of food poisoning and he has spent most of the last 48 hours in bed at his hotel. He needed extra time to warm up on the range because he felt so stiff, but he looked back to normal once he got on the golf course.
"Probably a little better than I was expecting out there, to be honest," McIlroy said. "Thankfully, it was a decent start and now going to try to just get into the tournament."
Spieth had no complaints, either.
He didn't touch his golf clubs for two weeks after he returned from the Presidents Cup and was expecting some rust. He made only two bad mistakes, a three-putt bogey from just short of the 13th green and a tee shot on the 17th so weak that it didn't clear the hazard, but countered with six birdies.
"I hit some shots that looked like we were just continuing the end of the season," Spieth said. "And I hit some that looked like I took some time off. It was a bit of both. All in all, I was very pleased. Obviously, I thought 4 under would be further up the leaderboard than it is, but there's a lot of guys playing solid golf right now."
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