A spectacular hole-in-one helped Eddie Pepperell claim a share of the lead with Ryder Cup star Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Wallace after the opening round of the £3million British Masters.
While tournament host Justin Rose struggled to an opening 74 at Walton Heath, his fellow Englishmen overcame difficult windy conditions to end the day on top of the leaderboard on five under par.
The first hole-in-one of Pepperell’s European Tour career came in remarkable fashion, his five-iron from 172 yards on the ninth seeming to hit the bottom of the flag, bounce high in the air and away from the hole before spinning back into the cup.
Pepperell was not done there and a birdie on the 10th and eagle on the 11th meant he had covered a three-hole stretch in five under par before bogeys on the 13th and 15th were followed by a closing birdie.
“It was a bizarre shot from where I was standing,” Pepperell said. “It looked like it pitched in the hole, jumped up and looked like it was going long because of the height it came out and obviously went in.
“I played awful in the pro-am on Wednesday, probably the worst I have in a while and I wouldn’t say I played great today but had that really hot run and it’s great to be at the top with Matt and Tommy.”
Fleetwood’s own round was not without incident, with his only bogey of the day coming after an errant tee shot on the par-three 17th finished in a cup holder in a buggy which had been parked to the left of the green.
“I’m still not sure how it got there,” said Fleetwood, who outscored playing partner, Ryder Cup team-mate and Race to Dubai rival Francesco Molinari by six shots.
“Luckily it didn’t go in the beer in the other cup holder because it would have ruined a drink and the golf ball. It wasn’t a great shot, but bogey was fine. It’s not something you get too angry about around here today.
“I do have quite a good mindset at the moment. I’m by no means the freshest I’ve ever been but it’s a case of trying to be easy on yourself.”
Wallace had set the clubhouse target earlier in the day as he seeks a fifth win in his 50th European Tour start and fourth victory of a season which saw him narrowly miss out on a Ryder Cup wild card.
“I was disappointed to not be there but I saw Thomas (Bjorn, European captain) on Tuesday this week and he said probably one of the nicest things someone has ever said to me as a golfer.
“I won’t say what that is because it’s between me and him, but I’m going to use that and I’m the type of character that’s going to use this disappointment as fire to go and make the next one and play better and get better as a golfer and a human being.”
Wallace headed straight to the driving range after Europe’s victory at Le Golf National was confirmed and his social media post saying “2020 starts now” did not go unnoticed by Bjorn.
“That shows a lot about his character and the way he’s been through it all has been great,” Bjorn said after a 73. “I just said to him I’ll always be there for him, but I was there for him before.
“I had a vision of what this team should be and unfortunately at that moment in time Matt wasn’t in it, but he was very, very close. But that doesn’t make Matt a worse golfer or anything. I just love his attitude towards how he goes forward and he’ll be there in the future.”
Justin Thomas is targeting a flying start to the new season with a third victory in the space of four years in the CIMB Classic.
Thomas secured his first PGA Tour win in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 and successfully defended the title the following year, but missed out on a hat-trick when he could only finish 17th in 2017.
And having missed out on a second successive FedEx Cup title in 2018 the former world number one is determined to get plenty of points on the board in the early stages of the wraparound season.
“I always feel it’s important to play in the fall (autumn) because you don’t want to get too far behind,” Thomas told a pre-event press conference. “These are big events, no cut, big purses and great fields where you’re able to get some points, you’re able to make a lot of money, you’re able to get a lot of world ranking points early or at least the opportunity to do so.
“It would be great to take two or three months off and not play any golf or anything, but these are courses and places I obviously enjoy coming to and I’ve had success at, and because of that it’s huge to be able to get off to a good start because you’re not behind the eight-ball.
“Once you get to January, February, March, you don’t feel like you’re as pressed to play well. Obviously if you don’t play well in these, then you’re still in that situation, but you feel hopefully you can play well enough here to move high enough in the FedEx Cup.”
Thomas took a week off after the Ryder Cup – where he was the top American points scorer at Le Golf National – and hopes his hard work in the gym will help him fight off fatigue after the long journey to Malaysia.
“I feel fresher and I would like to hope that that’s from the work that I’ve put in off the course,” he added.
“I’m still tired, don’t get me wrong, but I felt last year when I got here I was pretty out of it. I’m excited for these two weeks. I think I have an opportunity to play well and hopefully knock off a win or two, but at least give myself chances.”
Tommy Fleetwood insists he will be happy if Ryder Cup partner Francesco Molinari succeeds him as European number one.
Fleetwood is second in the Race to Dubai behind Open champion Molinari, with whom he created history by becoming the first European pair to win all four of their matches together in a Ryder Cup at Le Golf National.
The duo will be reunited in the first two rounds of this week’s British Masters at Walton Heath, with team-mate Thorbjorn Olesen completing the marquee group, as Fleetwood seeks to close the gap of 1.4million points to the other half of the ‘Moliwood’ pair.
Fleetwood, who will play in China and Turkey before contesting the season-ending event in Dubai, said: “I’m a long way behind, but it’s the opposite of last year in that I led all year last year and this year for the final few events I’m kind of chasing it now.
“I might get nowhere near and it’s a stretch as a goal to think about it, but I’d love to play Dubai with a chance. I’d love to get in contention in a couple of events and maybe win one.
“If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. It’s kind of in Fran’s hands a little bit, as well. There’s probably people I would prefer to beat, but if it was me and Fran that it came down to either way I’m going to be more than happy, whichever way that would turn on.
“I think we won’t hold it against him. With the year he’s having, I think he might deserve it.”
Fleetwood went straight from the Ryder Cup to last week’s Dunhill Links Championship and finished runner-up at St Andrews in what was his 24th tournament of a busy season.
And, although the 27-year-old enjoys playing such a full schedule, he admits it is beginning to take its toll.
“You always get to a stage where you need a week off and I think the most exhausted I’ve been through the year this year was Germany and France after the US Open,” said Fleetwood, who finished runner-up to Brooks Koepka at Shinnecock Hills.
“I think that was where I pretty much crashed at that point. It’s about knowing when your cut-off point is and knowing when that’s coming, either having the whereabouts to pull out or, if you’re going to play, not worry too much about your form and read too much into it.
“At the moment I feel absolutely fine, but like I’m getting close to that point where I need a week off again.”