Lee Westwood has high hopes of going into the Masters with another win under his belt after starting his defence of the Andalucian Open with a seven-under-par 65 at Aloha yesterday. But two of Europe's youngsters – one of them the world's No 1 amateur playing his first Tour event – are chasing Westwood hard.
Sheffield's Danny Willett, the 20-year-old son of a clergyman, came in with a 66 after two eagles in the first seven holes of his debut, while 18-year-old Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, only six months into his professional career, showed his rich promise again with a 68 when the wind was much stronger after lunch.
Westwood did not register a bogey after deciding to fly back from America to defend the title and then return across the Atlantic for the Masters in two weeks' time. He began and finished with successful 18-foot putts and had five more birdies in between.
Course management was the key to his success, just as it will be at Augusta next month, and Westwood, looking to stretch his lead in the Ryder Cup points race, said: "I've always been pretty good at that. It's common sense really – but nobody ever said that everybody on the European Tour had common sense.
"I've got one eye on the Masters, but I didn't fancy another two-week stint in the States and nothing beats winning for confidence."
Westwood was back playing with his Ryder Cup partner Darren Clarke, but the Ulsterman mixed an eagle and three birdies with four bogeys and a double bogey. That added up to a one-over 73, and Clarke revealed afterwards that he was suffering from blisters on both feet caused by a new pair of shoes.
"Don't call me stupid because I know I'm stupid," he said. "I played like a part-time professional and part-time 10-handicapper."
Willett, joint second with Norwegian Jan-Are Larsen after the first round, has a plus-five handicap, is the reigning English champion, was a Walker Cup team-mate of McIlroy last September and his recent win in the Spanish Amateur took him top of the amateur world rankings.
An invitation to play this week's event quickly followed and he said: "I was quite nervous, but starting with a 25-foot eagle putt took a lot of the nerves out of the way. I proved to myself I can play a professional golf course and play well."
Almost a year ago in Portugal, the Spaniard Pablo Martin became the first amateur ever to win on the European Tour, so does Willett think he can emulate him? "I was joking about it before coming here. You never know – it's always in the back of your mind, but you can't think about it on the course," he said.
Willett has his fireman brother Matthew as his caddie and when asked if his father, a vicar at Christ Church in Hackenthorpe, South Yorkshire, ever carried his bag he replied: "He used to, but he stopped after telling me to hit through some trees. I took about 10."
His second eagle came on the 526-yard 16th courtesy of a four-iron to three feet, and he was alongside Westwood on seven-under par before pushing his final tee shot behind a tree to record a bogey.
McIlroy, whom Willett beat in the second round of the British Amateur last June, was happy to rediscover his form again after three successive missed cuts in Dubai, Malaysia and South Korea.
Olazabal shows promise after seven months out
It was a good day at the Andalucian Open for Jose Maria Olazabal on his return from seven months out battling rheumatic pains.
Concerned about his future at the end of last year, the double Masters champion returned a one-under 71 which he said was "better than I expected". The Spaniard has suffered rheumatism in his knee, shoulder and lower back, and when he had to postpone his planned January comeback, the prospect of an enforced retirement was looming.
However, a programme of anti-inflammatory treatment enabled him to request an invitation for this week's tournament.
He has ruled out attempting to qualify for the Ryder Cup as a player, and will be at Valhalla solely as Nick Faldo's vice-captain. "Faldo has nothing to worry about," he said recently. "From the neck up I'm still bright enough."
But he still has sights on next month's Masters, and a decent showing in Spain this weekend will be just the tonic he needs.