European Tour

No let-up for Willett in Malaysia

Danny Willett (Gallo Images)
Danny Willett (Gallo Images)

Kuala Lumpur - England's fast-rising Danny Willett knocked in three birdies and an eagle over his final six holes to pull to within a stroke of the opening-round lead at the Maybank Championship Malaysia on Thursday.

Willett, who has leapt up golf's world rankings thanks to a run of strong outings including a win in Dubai two weeks ago, shot a six-under 65 in the new tournament's debut despite a slow start.

"It was a very mixed bag. I hit it very nicely on the front nine but made nothing," he said.

"It was one of those days where you put two very different nines together and got a good score."

Nathan Holman, a 24-year-old from Melbourne who won the Australian PGA Championship in December, was in sole possession of the lead with a bogey-free 64 in steam-bath conditions at the par-71 Royal Selangor Golf Club.

Willett was joined at 65 by six other golfers on a crowded leaderboard.

Besides his Dubai Desert Classic victory, the fourth win of his career, the European Ryder Cup hopeful has logged a handful of other top-10 finishes in recent months and quickly become one of golf's young players to watch.

He has soared from 47th a year ago to world number 13 today and is the top-ranked player in the Malaysian tournament, which also features Major champions Louis Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer.

Willett, 28, said he was able to maintain focus and end the day strongly by not letting his recent success go to his head.

"One thing I tried to do was to keep expectations as low as possible. It is always easy to come here and go 'hey, I just won,' and keep expectations high," he said.

"I've done that before and it kind of kills you."

Playing in the tournament's marquee group with former British Open champion Oosthuizen and Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee, Willett bogeyed the second hole and made the turn at just one-under par.

But he turned on the jets down the stretch.

From the 13th through 15th he went eagle-birdie-birdie, then ended the day by hammering a lengthy putt on 18 that hit the hole with such force it nearly popped out.

It nestled back in for another birdie.

Thongchai made a habit of missing the fairway off the tee, but deft scrambling and accurate putts kept him bogey-free.

He was tied with eight other golfers at two strokes off the lead, while Oosthuizen was in a pack one shot back.

The $3 million tournament, co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours, is the successor to the longtime Malaysian Open, which has been discontinued due to a sponsorship shift.

Leading first-round scores on Thursday in the Maybank Championship Malaysia at the par-71 Royal Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur:

64 - Nathan Holman (AUS)

65 - Angelo Que (PHI), Danny Willett (ENG), Tommy Fleetwood (ENG), Peter Uihlein (USA), Alexander Levy (FRA), Jorge Campillo (ESP)

66 - Prom Meesawat (THA), K.T. Kim (KOR), Richard Bland (ENG), Thongchai Jaidee (THA), Lee Soo-Min (KOR), Miguel Tabuena (PHI), Masahiro Kawamura (JPN), Marcus Fraser (AUS)

67 - Thitiphun Chuayprakong (THA), Gaganjeet Bhullar (IND), Louis Oosthuizen (RSA), Shaaban Hussin (MAS)

68 - Robert Rock (ENG), Hsieh Chi-hsien (TPE), Stephen Gallacher (SCO), Rahil Gangjee (IND), James Morrison (ENG), Kenneth De Silva (MAS), Chapchai Nirat (THA), Romain Wattel (FRA), David Lipsky (USA), Maximilian Kieffer (GER), Thriston Lawrence (RSA)

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