Golf: McIlroy climbs out of sick bed to make solid WGC start in Shanghai, Grace leads with 63

Rory McIlroy tees off during the WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament in Shanghai on Nov 5, 2015.
Rory McIlroy tees off during the WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament in Shanghai on Nov 5, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy shook off a bout of food poisoning to shoot a four-under par 68 in the first round of the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in Shanghai on Thursday.

McIlroy, who had been in bed for most of the past two days, said the illness had caused him to lose 4.5kg but he still managed to rattle in six birdies. A double bogey at the tough par-four 15th was the only blemish on his card at Sheshan Golf Club.

"I can't remember the last time I was this light," the 26-year-old, who has dropped to 68kg, said after his round. "Looking forward to a good dinner tonight - hopefully it will stay inside my body."

It left the Northern Irish four-time Major champion five shots behind leader Branden Grace of South Africa, who carded a 63 in windless, soft conditions that saw a raft of low-scoring as 59 of the world-class 78-man field went under par.

"It's probably a little better than I was expecting out there to be honest," said McIlroy. "But one of the hardest things was I had been in bed for basically two days, so whenever I got on to the (practice) range, I was stiff, really, really stiff.

"So I had to loosen up quite well. I still feel a little stiff actually."

World No. 2 Jordan Spieth matched McIlroy's 68 as did 13 other players in the world-class field including former major champions Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. Masters and US Open champion Spieth was pleased to shake off some rust, having not played competitive golf since the Presidents Cup a month ago.

"I hit some shots that looked like we were just continuing the end of the season and I hit some that looked like I took some time off," he said. "It was a bit of both."

McIlroy, who missed a large part of the season after tearing ankle ligaments, holds a slim lead in the European Tour's Race to Dubai standings with just three events to go.

But second-placed Danny Willett of England got off to a perfect start in his quest to chase down the Ulsterman by shooting one of the rounds of the day, a 65 despite a bogey at his final hole, the ninth.

"I'm a bit disappointed with the finish," said Willett. "But really pleased overall. Went out there, knuckled down and hit a lot of good shots. "If you can be within touching distance going into the final event, Dubai could be pretty interesting."

Three players are tied for second on eight under - Kevin Kisner of the United States, Australia's Steven Bowditch and Denmark's Thorbjorn Olesen.

China's young rising star Li Haotong once again showed he has the temperament and the talent to compete with the world's best as he shot a 66.

It left the 20-year-old in sole possession of eighth place after a round in which he thrilled large galleries of local fans.

"Actually, today, before, my feeling wasn't that good, so I don't know why, but today I played very well. It's very exciting," he told AFP after his opening round in the US$8.5 million (S$11.9 million) event.

Li has endured a busy time lately, playing consecutive weeks in Macau, Hong Kong and Turkey after spending most of the summer struggling for form on the US PGA's second-tier Web.com Tour.

But he finally demonstrated some of his prodigious ability at last week's Turkish Airlines Open, where he finished seven-under par in a share of 26th place.