Tommy Fleetwood lifted his chances of retaining his Race to Dubai crown as he made a strong start to the Sky Sports British Masters at Walton Heath.
Fleetwood remained unaffected by physical and mental fatigue after a hectic three weeks and opened with a confident five-under 67 that earned him a share of the lead with fellow Englishmen Matt Wallace and Eddie Pepperell.
Current Race to Dubai leader Francesco Molinari, who is 1.4m euros ahead of Fleetwood, stuttered to a one-over 73 playing alongside his Ryder Cup team-mate, while tournament host Justin Rose slipped to four over before three straight birdies helped him salvage a 74.
Wallace was first into the clubhouse on five under par, although he cost himself the outright lead when he bogeyed the ninth – his final hole – to complete a round which also included an eagle at the 11th and six birdies in tough, blustery conditions around the historic Surrey layout.
With light rain adding to the difficulty for the later starters, Fleetwood moved smoothly into a tie for the lead when he knocked a stunning 240-yard approach in close and converted for his fifth birdie of the day at the 16th, although his tee shot at the next ended up in a marshal’s golf cart.
He then overhit his pitch and was unable to save par, but he bounced back with a closing birdie before Pepperell, in the group immediately behind, also closed with a three to cap the most entertaining round of the first day.
The charismatic 27-year-old enjoyed an astonishing run around the turn, following a birdie at seven with a hole-in-one at the short ninth as his tee shot hit the base of the pin before spinning back into the cup.
Pepperell then birdied the 10th and recorded his second eagle in three holes at the 11th, although his momentum stalled with bogeys at 13 and 15 before bouncing back with a birdie at 18 to join the tie at the top of the leaderboard.
The English trio have a one-shot advantage over a group of five players, one of whom – Alex Levy – had just bogeyed the 17th when play was suspended due to darkness.
Matt Fitzpatrick, who lifted the title at Woburn in 2015, is just two strokes off the pace along with Ross Fisher, Matthew Southgate and former Masters winner Trevor Immelman.
Paul Dunne, who pipped Rory McIlroy to the title at Close House last year with a superb final-round 61, opened his defence with a creditable 70 as only 40 of the 126-man field managed to break par on day one.
Molinari birdied two of the first five holes but then littered his card with four bogeys as he and another of Europe’s Ryder Cup heroes, Thorbjorn Olesen, ended the day six off the lead, with Rose needing a strong second day to avoid an early exit.