MATT Wallace delighted the Wentworth crowd in the opening round of the BMW PGA Championship, as the 29-year-old carded a flawless seven-under 65 to move into a one-stroke lead.
The sun blazed down upon the pristine Wentworth Club as the prestigious championship – ushering in a new era as it moved date from May to September – welcomed a total of 19,612 fans.
Wallace, from Hertfordshire’s Moor Park Golf Club, who won three of his four European Tour titles in 2018 – but is yet to win this year – was the star of the show, on Thursday.
He opened with a birdie three at the first before a stunning eagle-birdie-birdie run from the fourth hole saw him reach the turn in five-under.
Wallace, who started life as a junior at Batchworth Park, not from the Ricksmanworth club he now represents as a tour pro, said: “I’m very happy.
“Whenever you can get off to a start like that, it boosts your confidence and I’m just going on from last week really.
“I said to my caddie Smarty when we were walking to the first tee, let’s keep the same focus as how we ended last week – just carry it on,” added Wallace, who has Jonathan Smart – the caddy who was on Danny Willett’s bag when he won Green Jacket at the 2016 Augusta Masters – on the bag after a public spat that led to Matt’s break-up with Dave McNeilly last month.
“It’s very nice and pleasing to shoot that around here,” said Wallace. “I’m always grinding, working on trying to figure it out and get better.
“It’s the biggest event for me now, my home event. I’ve played the course plenty of times before coming into this week, and I feel comfortable.
“It always helps when your game’s in shape, as well.”
The Londoner cruised home with a couple more birdies to move to the top, ahead of Spain’s Jon Rahm and Swede Henrik Stenson on six-under, while their 2018 Ryder Cup-winning team-mate Justin Rose, was a shot further back after a five-under 67.
Hampshire ace Rose, who grew up just down the A30 at Hook, and would race home from watching the PGA at Wentworth to practice at his North Hants GC in the 1990s, was pleased to be back home with the new September slot.
Rose said: “It’s brilliant. It’s such a bonus with the weather, as well.
“Everyone is enjoying being outside. It’s almost nicer than summer. It’s got that nice crispness in the air as well, and the golf course – I’ve never seen it better.
“I think it’s really settled after all the changes through the years they have made, I think they have found their feet.
“My short game was I think what kept me in it. A couple of key saves when I missed the greens, I kept my up-and-downs going and played the par -fives well.”
Three-time Rolex winner Rahm, who was striking the ball superbly in practice, said: “I enjoy the Rolex Series events.
“I really don’t know what it is, if it’s coincidence or just the quality of people and players out here that make me want to play better,” said the Spaniard who claimed his third Rolex when winning the Irish Open in July.
“But at the same time, it’s also the history of those events in a place like this – there’s a lot of golf history and it’s really fun to be around.
“You need to pick your battles on this course. You definitely need to be swinging good. Any little mistake you’re going to pay for it.”
Stenson has posted several good finishes around the West Course without getting his hands on the big prize, said: “The greens are probably as good as I’ve ever seen them.
“So it’s been good for the golf course and the conditions to move into a later date, no question.
“It’s always hit and miss in May in mainland Europe to have perfect conditions. The guys have done a great job with the course, the greens are very nice.
“Looking back at my career, I don’t think I’ve been having too many wins and too many really good finishes when I haven’t started with a decent round or better. It sets up the week nicely and I just hope I can continue with that.”
Defending champion Francesco Molinari was also happy to be back in Surrey’s Virginia Water on the Burma Road.
“It’s been a great feeling coming back because it’s the tournament that kind of kick-started my great run last year.
“You come back here and you feel how different the last few months has been. It’s been more than a year, as well, so it’s been quite a long time.
“It was maybe more up-and-down than I would like but I managed to fight hard and the short game was good enough to keep me in the round – and nice birdie to finish at the last.”
•For live scoring from the second round at Wentworth click here.