James Kingston hit the top of the leaderboard with a six-under-par 66 shortly before play was suspended due to the threat of lightning in the Wentworth area at the BMW PGA Championship.
The South African had seven birdies and one bogey to usurp Finland’s Mikko Ilonen, a runner-up in two of his three European Tour appearances, on day one of the European Tour’s flagship event.
“It was nice,” said the two-time European Tour winner, who is playing on a sponsor’s invitation. “Obviously it’s good getting an invite into this event; what a great feeling to be back here.
“I’ve got to thank the European Tour for extending that invitation. I think we’ve made the most of it today.
“I played nicely and got off to a decent start, but then kept it together and hit a couple of really close shots and made some good putts when I needed to. Overall, I played really nicely and very happy with that.”
The 33-year-old Ilonen, who won both his European Tour titles in 2007, had six birdies and a bogey in his opening effort, with Scotland’s Scott Henry a shot further back in third as the closing stretch proved difficult for some of the world’s best players.
World number two Rory McIlroy birdied five of the last six in a 74; Justin Rose bogeyed the 17th and took seven at the par-five last for a level par 72; and their Ryder Cup team-mate Graeme McDowell also double bogeyed the closing hole after finding the water with his third shot. Last week’s Volvo World Match Play champion signed for a two-over 74 as a result.
“It was pretty nippy in the morning when we started and it still is,” said former British Amateur champion Ilonen – a runner-up in China and Morocco this season. “All day I was thinking, can I get these waterproof trousers off my legs, because it was just on the edge if I could just take some clothes off but I really couldn't. I just stayed patient and made some putts.
“I've had good form this year – this has not been the best of places for me, but I’ve always enjoyed to come over here because the tournament is first class, the best we have. Hopefully I can pull some scores together this week, as well.
“I’ve never really played that well over here. I think the best I’ve played around Wentworth, when I was 14 or 15 – I played a tournament here when I was a kid. Since that it’s been a bit of a struggle but hopefully we can turn it around this week.”
Henry only found out he was in the tournament as he boarded a flight from Madeira on Monday morning, but completed a 68 which started with a bogey but also contained four birdies and an eagle.
“It was nice to see my name on the leaderboard on the back nine, it was a bit surreal,” said the 26-year-old, who graduated from the Challenge Tour last season thanks to winning the Kazakhstan Open in a play-off.
“I was pretty nervous this morning, it’s a big tournament and the first time I have been here. It’s a great test of golf and for the first time this year I could put everything together.
“There have been too many rounds where I hit it great and have not converted any putts but after a bogey at the first I holed from 45 feet at the second and that settled me down.”
Of those still on the course, Swede Johan Edfors was going best on three under with three to play. The South Africans still on the course were Darren Fichardt on one-under through seven, Ernie Els who was level through 10, George Coetzee on one-over through 12, Dawie van der Walt on two-over through eight and Jaco van Zyl on three-over through 14.
Branden Grace, Jbe’ Kruger and Richard Sterne each completed a one-under 71, while Keith Horne birdied the 18th to come home in level-par – a frustrating score after his round promised so much at three-under through four. Thomas Aiken signed for a one-over 73, Garth Mulroy and Hennie Otto were on two-over 74, and Justin Walters carded a five-over 77.