Justin Rose lived up to his billing as pre-tournament favourite as Ryder Cup team-mate Ian Poulter ensured his last-minute dash to the Hong Kong Open was not a wasted journey.
World number seven Rose, who is the top ranked player in the field, carded a flawless five-under-par 65 on Thursday to lie one shot off the lead shared by Italy’s Andrea Pavan and Taiwan’s Lu Wei-chih.
But Poulter was just two shots further back on three under as he looked to make the most of his dramatic late entry into the event, the 39-year-old only arriving in Hong Kong at 7pm on Wednesday.
Poulter dropped out of the world’s top 50 on Sunday and was therefore ineligible for his planned appearance in the upcoming WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, meaning he would be unable to play the 13 events required for European Tour membership.
Only members can qualify for Europe’s Ryder Cup team and that meant Poulter was forced into a frantic journey from Orlando to Hong Kong – via New York – but only after former US PGA champion Rich Beem generously agreed to give the Englishman his tournament invite.
Poulter followed birdies on the second and fifth with bogeys on the eighth and ninth to reach the turn in level par, but came home in 33 thanks to birdies on the 10th, 15th and 17th.
Pavan came into the week 191st in the Race to Dubai and needing to finish second or better to climb into the top 110 and keep hold of his playing privileges.
That would represent a career-best for the 26-year-old, who has never recorded a top-three finish, but four birdies in his last six holes gave him an opening 64 and a share of the lead.
“This year has been a struggle to say the least,” Pavan said. “I’m just trying to dig deep and really look forward to every week. Obviously this is the last event of the year for me and then I’m looking to go to Q-School. So it’s all about just giving myself chances.
“I’m just really trying to get my game in better shape. It’s good on the range but I still feel like I’m lacking a bit of confidence. I know I have what it takes. It’s been tough last year and this year, but it’s all a learning curve and I really hope I can make the next step soon.”
Lu, who came close to retirement three years ago after undergoing brain surgery, won three times on the Asian Tour before a non-malignant tumour was discovered in 2012.
“For the first six months after the surgery, I pretty much gave up all my confidence and trust because I had no power and I didn’t think I could play golf anymore,” the 36-year-old said after a round containing eight birdies and two bogeys.
“I had to rest for another six months and then finally I started playing a little bit. If I played 18 holes, I could barely walk after 14 or 15 holes. But finally I started coming back mentally and physically. I just keep telling myself that I want to be a real golfer again and compete on the Tour.”
Lu’s countryman CT Pan and India’s Jeev Milka Singh were alongside Rose on five under, with Graeme McDowell, Oliver Fisher and Kevin Phelan among the group on four under.
Fisher is 105th on the Race to Dubai and looks to be safe for next season, while Phelan is 123rd and in need of a good finish this week to secure his card.