“Pinch me” Bradley in command

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Keegan Bradley has extended his sensational first year in top-level golf by marching into the lead at the HSBC Champions.

Keegan Bradley’s sensational first year in top-level golf continued on Thursday when he secured the first-round lead at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions.

The 25 year old American, who came in under the radar in his rookie year to snatch a play-off victory at the final Major of the year, the US PGA Championship in August, posted five birdies and an eagle in a faultless 7-under 65 that swept him clear of the jostling, chasing pack.

He will go into Friday’s second round of this elite event reserved for champions and winners from around the world at Shanghai’s exclusive Sheshan International Golf Club two shots in front of fellow American Bo van Pelt, the winner of last week’s CIMB Asian Pacific Championship, and two inform Swedes, Fredrik Jacobson and Alex Noren

All three posted 5-under 67’s.

Jacobson did it by matching Keegan’s five birdies and an eagle. but spoiling his fine run with two bogies.

Van Pelt posted seven birdies, but also lost two shots to bogies while Noren carded only six birdies but gave away only one bogey

Behind them Thailand veteran Thongchai Jaidee, South Korean No 1 KJ Choi, England’s Justin Rose and USA’s David Toms were tied for 5th after posting 4-under 68s.

This time last year Bradley, the latest pretender to Tiger Woods’ US throne, was happy to be graduating from the Nationwide Tour, but now only 12 months later, he is one of the shiny new stars of US golf.

Playing with Westwood and Australian Adam Scott, he started with a birdie on the 401 yard tenth, added another on the long 14th and then holed a 15 foot eagle putt at the 538 yard 18th.

Further shots were then picked up on the second and fifth coming home in a round that was as solid as they come.

“Any time you can play well in a group like that, with Lee Westwood and Adam Scott, it feels very good,” said the still humble Bradley. “Especially in a tournament like this, the HSBC World Golf Championships!”

“I’m just very proud of the way I played, and it’s just a very rewarding round.

“It’s my first time playing with Lee, and I’ve played with Adam before. I played with him in the first round of the Tour Championship. I played well there, too.

“For me, every week I’m amazed at who I’m around. To be in a group like that in this tournament and to play like that on this course, is very rewarding and it means a whole lot to me.”

Last week coming into the Champions, Bradley, who this year also won the Grand Slam of golf featuring the four Major champions, said, slightly wide-eyed: “It’s been a great season,

“Realistically, just keeping my (US PGA Tour) card would have been good enough.

“Every week I play out here I kind of have to pinch myself.”

Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell may also have been pinching himself on Thursday – but for a different reason.

McDowell charged into the lead at 4-under after just six holes, but his blistering start from the 10th tee at Shanghai’s Sheshan International Golf Club didn’t last.

The 2010 US Open Champion’s erratic form continued when he ran into big trouble just one hole later with a triple bogey at the par 3 17th and then, still steaming, added another bogey after the turn to find himself back to square one.

He did fight back, to close with a 69 and he is still in the hunt along with the logjam of nearly a dozen players at 3-under that included World No 2 Lee Westwood.

Westwood came close to an albatross at the 594 yard 14th, his approach over the water hitting the flag and stopping less than two feet away.

Reigning US Open champion, Rory McIlroy, had no such luck.

Fresh from winning US$2m at last week’s unsanctioned Shanghai Open he was unable to conjure up any real sparkle and with just three birdies and a bogey, had to be happy with a 2-under 70 that tied him with Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and Ryder Cup stars Paul Casey and Ian Poulter.

Almost certainly two of the most disappointed men after the first round were also among the youngest in the field.

English young gun Tom Lewis, who turned professional only a month or so ago after representing a winning Britain and Ireland against the USA in the Walker Cup, stumbled home in third last place with a 78.

Worse than that, though, was 18-year-old Matteo Manassero’s awful 82. It left him red-faced, stone last and all of 17 shots off the pace.

TOP 10 LEADERBOARD

65 Keegan Bradley
67 Alexander Noren (Swe), Fredrik Jacobson (Swe), Bo Van Pelt
68 Justin Rose (Eng), K J Choi (Kor), David Toms, Thongchai Jaidee (Tha)
69 Rory Sabbatini (RSA), Graeme McDowell (NIrl), Adam Scott (Aus), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Simon Dyson (Eng), Peter Hanson (Swe), Aaron Baddeley (Aus), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven), Lee Westwood (Eng)

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