SHANGHAI (AFP) - The publicity posters plastered all over Shanghai for the WGC-HSBC Champions portray Rickie Fowler as a superhero "Eagle Eye", and the US Ryder Cup star lived up to his billing on Thursday.
Sporting a new mohawk haircut under his trademark broad-peaked cap, the 27-year-old world No. 11 proved a cut above all but one player as he fired a blemish-free seven-under 65 to lie one shot off the lead at Sheshan International Golf Club.
Sweden's Rikard Karlberg leads on eight under after a damp first round of the US$9.5 million (S$13.2 million) event dubbed "Asia's Major", where Rory McIlroy's putter proved as cool as the conditions.
The FedEx Cup champion and world No. 3 carded a steady one-under 71 with just two birdies and a solitary bogey.
"I feel I hit the ball well," said the Ulsterman, who was solid from tee to green but just could not hole a putt of any length.
"Greens are soft and obviously there's a lot of footprints. I feel I did everything okay. I just didn't really get any momentum going," he added.
McIlroy was not alone among the favourites to struggle. World No. 2 and US Open champion Dustin Johnson toiled to a two-over 74, as did Masters champion Danny Willett. US PGA Champion Jimmy Walker had a day to forget with a 78.
There were no such woes for the well-travelled Fowler, whose last tournament win came in Abu Dhabi in January and who has also recorded victories in South Korea and Scotland.
Having started on the 10th, the colourful American was three-under when he left himself short of the green at the treacherous par-three 17th.
But he made the chip look ridiculously easy for his birdie and almost holed another chip at No. 18 leading to a tap-in birdie. Eagle Eye indeed.
"Yeah, I was trying to have a superhero performance today," Fowler told AFP.
He was playing with Russell Knox (66) and Paul Casey (65) in a three-ball that ripped round Sheshan with a combined score of 18-under.
"Both of those guys have been playing well," said Fowler. "We enjoyed each other's presence, fed off each other a bit. I don't think there's a threesome that beat us today."
Knox pulled off a massive Shanghai surprise a year ago by recording his maiden PGA Tour win. The Scot carried on where he left off with the highlight being four birdies in a row from the 14th to the 17th having started his round on the 10th.
"When you're playing with Rickie Fowler, nobody cares if I'm defending champion. So that always takes a little pressure off," said Knox with a wry smile. He shares third place with American Daniel Berger and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama.
Meanwhile Karlberg, a former Asian Tour rookie of the year, showed no nerves in his first WGC event appearance as he galloped away from a field containing 40 of the world's top 50 players.
A birdie at the 16th took the world No. 87 to nine under but his tee shot at the short 17th disappeared down a steep bank needing a great chip from thick rough to save par.
But when a second errant tee shot in a row found a fairway bunker on the par-five 18th it led to his only bogey of the day.
"I just had a couple of uncommitted shots at the end," said Karlberg. "On 18 my drive didn't fade and I ended up in the bunker. Apart from that everything was easy, a walk in the park, just one of those days."