Lee Westwood’s last appearance in the US PGA Championship ended with a closing 76, a lot to drink and a furious tirade against his critics on Twitter.
Twelve months on, the 41-year-old equalled his lowest ever round in a major with an opening 65 at Valhalla to share the clubhouse lead with American Kevin Chappell on six under par.
Italy’s Edoardo Molinari, seventh in the Open last month, was a shot behind alongside American Jim Furyk, with Finland’s Mikko Ilonen on four under and Ian Poulter, Joost Luiten and Bernd Wiesberger another shot back, no doubt much to the delight of watching European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.
In contrast, McGinley’s opposite number Tom Watson saw Tiger Woods struggle to an opening 74 after Matt Kuchar – who has already secured his place on the team for Gleneagles – withdrew before play began, coincidentally with a back injury.
Westwood had made early exits from four successive events before taking advantage of last week’s Bridgestone Invitational not having a halfway cut with a closing 63.
And he carried on where he left off in Louisville with a round containing nine birdies, five of them coming in the last six holes after a double bogey on the first when his drive finished in a divot on the fairway.
Westwood, whose previous lowest score in the US PGA was his opening 66 at Oak Hill last year, said: “Last week was a big week for me.
“I felt like I had turned the corner and I was starting to swing it a lot better but that’s no good unless you start converting it into low rounds.
“The first three rounds were frustrating because I played a lot better than three over.
“Then obviously I got it going the final day, shot 63.
“I tried to keep it low-key in the practice rounds here, just playing nine holes each day, and carry that momentum through to the first round, which I’ve managed to do.”
Westwood had lost £35 to Chappell in a practice round earlier this week but the pair will now be hoping to continue the trend which has seen all three major winners in 2014 – Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy – be in the top two after the opening round.
World No 107 Chappell has yet to win on the PGA Tour and has recorded just one top-10 this season, while Westwood has a record eight top-three finishes in major championships without winning one. This is his 66th attempt.
Westwood has been more successful in the Ryder Cup, being on the winning side six times in eight consecutive appearances since making his debut in 1997. And he would love to maintain that impressive sequence by climbing into the automatic qualifying places before the team is finalised at the end of the month.
“I’ve had chats with Paul and he said try and show some form,” added Westwood, who was a wild card at the K Club in 2006.
“I don’t know whether he’s just looking for a reason to pick me, but I’ve shot 63 last Sunday and I’m leading a major this week so I’m ticking that box for him.
“I don’t want to rely on a pick. I always think that there comes a bit more pressure if you’re a selection because you’ve got to try and sort of justify your pick and I don’t want to be in that position.”
World No 1 Rory McIlroy had been making serene progress up the leaderboard with three birdies in a front nine of 32, only for the Open champion to hook his second shot to the 10th out of bounds and run up a double-bogey seven.
McIlroy also three-putted the 11th to drop back to level par, but bounced back with birdies on the next two holes from close range after superb approach shots.
Palmer had moved into the outright lead on seven under with a birdie on the par-five seventh, but dropped his first shot of the day on the next when his par putt caught the edge of the hole and span out.
On the other side of the course, Henrik Stenson had birdied the 14th to move within a shot of the lead on five under.