Golf: Willett and Fitzpatrick in the hunt in Nedbank Challenge

Danny Willett is in contention in the defence of his Nedbank Challenge title
Danny Willett is in contention in the defence of his Nedbank Challenge title

Danny Willett made an excellent start to his Nedbank Golf Challenge title defence in Sun City but he was upstaged by Henrik Stenson who turned a five per cent chance of playing into a share of the lead after the first round.

Stenson arrived in South Africa suffering from the flu but the 39-year-old carded a flawless 66 at the Gary Player Country Club to finish six under par alongside local favourite Jaco van Zyl, with Willett a shot behind following a bogey-free 67.

South African Branden Grace and Open runner-up Marc Leishman are two shots off the pace on four under while Sheffield’s Matt Fitzpatrick, Ross Fisher and Russell Knox were three shots off on three under.

“I don’t think he (Stenson) can be ill,” joked Willett. “He played brilliantly. I think he got very tired towards the end there but he played tremendous golf.

“Looking at that, you’ve got to think that if you can stay close to him over the next few days you’ll be doing well. Not too close though, he can keep his virus away!”

Willett said on Wednesday he was relishing being one of the favourites in each event he plays and handled the pressure superbly with five birdies and no bogeys.

“Because it’s at the same golf course, people expect you to play well again, but everyone knows how fickle this game can be,” the world number 20 said.

“The course does set up well for me, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to shoot 67 every time you play it.”

Stenson admitted it had been a rough week before taking to the course at Sun City.

“I’ve been in bed with the flu for three days and after I had to pull out of the pro-am on Tuesday I probably had a five per cent chance of playing,” said 2008 champion Stenson, who is also due to undergo a minor knee operation next week.

“I felt quite a bit better this morning and the doctor didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t play.

“I’m delighted with the score, but the last few holes I completely ran out of energy. From the 14th onwards my legs were like jelly and it was a real struggle. I missed a couple of chances coming in, but I would’ve taken one under standing on the first tee, so I’m very happy.

“This year the rough is a bit less penal but you still have to be very accurate off the tee and precise with your iron shots.”

Van Zyl has won 13 times on the Sunshine Tour but admitted he was feeling the pressure on his tournament debut, adding: “I could feel my heart beating in my throat on the first tee. This is Africa’s major.”