SHANGHAI — Lee Westwood spent his career trying to be No. 1. The way he played Thursday in the HSBC Champions, it doesn’t look as though he wants to give up his prized ranking after just one week.
Even as Francesco Molinari of Italy made a charge to a 7-under 65 for a one-shot lead, the focus in the final World Golf Championship of the year quickly shifted to what could be a prolonged and fascinating battle for No. 1.
In his debut as golf’s top-ranked player, Westwood birdied some of the toughest holes at Sheshan International and showed hardly any signs of rust from playing in his second stroke-play tournament in three months. He finished with back-to-back birdies for a 66.
Two shots behind Westwood was Tiger Woods, without his No. 1 ranking for the first time in more than five years. Woods made a most improbable par from behind the bushes with a 4-iron he had to aim away from loose tree roots, which proved more satisfying than the three straight birdies that sent him to a 68.
Not to be forgotten is the defending champion, fourth-ranked Phil Mickelson, who rallied for a 69. PGA champion Martin Kaymer, the No. 3 player, opened with a 72.
Any of those four could go to No. 1 this week at the HSBC Champions, and it could just be getting started.
“You just basically asked me how long a piece of string is, I think,” Westwood replied when asked when the crowd near the top of the ranking might have some clarity. “I think the world rankings are reflective of how competitive world golf is at the moment.”
“Nobody is the out-and-out world No. 1,” he added. “I think that’s partly to do with Tiger not having played quite so well this year, and partly to do with Tiger having made everybody else elevate their games. He’s a victim of his own brilliance. We’ve all had to work harder, and we’ve closed the gap.”
There was plenty of brilliance to go around on a mostly clear afternoon at Sheshan International, with sunshine fighting through the haze and only a mild breeze. That allowed for 51 players in the 78-man field to shoot par or better.
Molinari would not have expected to be at the top when he sent his wedge over the third green, his 12th hole, and faced a scary downhill chip. He turned bogey into birdie by chipping in, the start of four successive birdies without a bogey on his card.
“Everything seems in the right place at the moment,” Molinari said.
No one should be surprised for the No. 1 player to open with a 66 in such gentle conditions, although even Westwood wasn’t sure what kind of form he brought to Shanghai. Since his runner-up finish at the British Open in July, he played two rounds at the Bridgestone Invitational before pulling out with his calf injury, played four matches at the Ryder Cup and four rounds at the Dunhill Links Championship.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said.
Nor did he feel as though he had to live up to any expectations as the new No. 1.
After knocking in a 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th, Westwood took on the 15th with a solid drive and a 6-iron to 15 feet for birdie, then watched his drive on the 288-yard 16th hole pitch 10 feet from the cup before rolling over the back of the green. His chip raced 18 feet down the slope, but he holed the birdie putt.
Westwood wasn’t trying to send a message, although if anyone took it that way, it was fine by him.
“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” came from Yuta Ikeda of Japan, who bogeyed his last hole and shot 67, and rising South 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.
For Woods, the best sign might have been picking up where he left off. This is his first stroke-play tournament since Sept. 12 at the BMW Championship, and his first competition since Oct. 3 at the Ryder Cup. That’s the longest layoff since he returned to golf at the Masters, and his opening bogey was his only dropped shot of the round.
Two holes stood out for Woods.
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 had three straight birdies on his back nine. The most impressive came on the par-5 second hole, where he hit a 5-wood from 247 yards to 18 feet for a two-putt birdie.
“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.”