Golf

Danny Willett finds his touch in the Alps

"I wasn't quite expecting a 65." Danny Willett is surprised by his performance
Phil Casey

Danny Willett surprised himself with a brilliant start to the defence of his Omega European Masters title - but the form of Ryder Cup team-mates Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan could be a concern for European captain Darren Clarke.

Willett carded an opening five-under-par 65 at Crans-sur-Sierre on Thursday, finishing his round in style with an eagle from 10 feet on the ninth, his final hole of the day.

That left the Masters champion in a nine-way tie for second a shot behind American Paul Peterson, England's Daniel Brooks and France's Gregory Havret and Mike Lorenzo-Vera.

In contrast, Willett's playing partners Fitzpatrick and Sullivan struggled to rounds of 75 and 74 respectively, with Fitzpatrick limiting the damage with two late birdies after playing his first 14 holes in seven over par.

Willett has endured a mixed campaign since claiming his first major title in April, missing the cut in three of his nine events and recording a sole top-20 finish in the BMW PGA Championship after sharing the halfway lead.

The 28-year-old also snapped the putter he used at Augusta National in frustration during the US Open and could only finish 53rd in the Open, 79th in the US PGA and 37th in the Olympics.

However, the world number 11 is a big fan of this week's venue in the Swiss mountains, where he carded a brilliant closing 65 to finish a shot ahead of Fitzpatrick last year.

The only blemish on Willett's scorecard came when he duffed his approach to the fifth, but four birdies and the closing eagle after a brilliant approach to the par-five ninth took him alongside Andrew Johnston, Richard Green, Marcus Fraser, JB Hansen, Julien Quesne, Scott Hend, Li Haotong and James Morrison on five under.

"It was an early start and then I had a terrible warm-up this morning, which wasn't the best after I've had two weeks off trying to work on the game," Willett told Sky Sports. "I wasn't quite expecting a 65.

"Luckily it's one of them places where if you get it in position off the tee, you give yourself a few chances. I got the ball in play the first few holes and then felt a little bit better after six, seven holes, hit a few good golf shots and my eye fits quite nicely to this place for some reason."

Willett revealed he had taken the advice of his caddie to play more "competitive rounds" in practice rather than hitting balls on the range, adding: "We played four or five rounds, keeping a card and trying to get back to scoring regardless of how you are swinging it.

"It kind of helped. You get days like today where you warm up badly but because I played enough rounds at home and knew the game was there or thereabouts and that probably really helped."

Peterson, who held off Ryder Cup wild card Thomas Pieters to win his first European Tour title in the Czech Masters a fortnight ago, carded seven birdies and a single bogey to set a clubhouse target later matched by Brooks, Havret and Lorenzo-Vera.

Lorenzo-Vera carded six birdies in a flawless round, while Brooks vaulted into contention thanks to back-to-back eagles on the 14th and 15th.

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