In his first round in England since winning his maiden major title at Augusta, Willett carded six birdies and no bogeys in an opening 66 to finish a shot behind YE Yang, Joost Luiten, and Scott Hend.
The 28-year-old from Sheffield experienced at first hand the backing McIlroy received in last week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, playing alongside the four-time major winner in the final round.
And although he slipped to a tie for 23rd after a closing 77, Willett would like the English crowds to replicate the atmosphere which helped McIlroy claim his first win of the year at the K Club.
“The reception on the first tee was amazing,” said Willett, whose best finish at Wentworth saw him fifth on his debut in 2010, when he led after an opening 65. “Last week in Ireland was fantastic, but I had a little bit more support out there being a home boy in England. We got a great reception all the way around.
“It’s always nice to come back and play in front of the home crowds. It helped Rory last week coming down the stretch and hopefully it can do the same for one of the English lads this week. You always get great crowds at Wentworth and if the good weather will hopefully stay around, we should be in for a great week.
“I’ve worked really hard the last three weeks. I was a bit lax going into the Players Championship and last week we were grinding for three days and had glimpses of good golf in there.
“I’ve been on the range again this week. Just because you win a big tournament doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels, I’d rather work to win the next one.”
Hend, who won his second European Tour title in Thai-land in March, carded eight birdies and a solitary bogey on the 15th as a more conservative approach paid off for the big-hitting 43-year-old.
“I tried aggressive last year and it really doesn’t work,” said the world number 85, who missed the cut on his debut last year.
“So I thought I’d just be a little bit cautious (off the tee) and a bit more aggressive into the greens. We’ll see how that plays out during the week.
“There’s a long three more days to go but I’m comfortable wherever I’m playing, whether I’m running last or whether I’m running first. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”
Yang, who made history in the 2009 US PGA as the first player to come from behind to beat Tiger Woods in the final round of a major, also carded eight birdies and one bogey, while Luiten bogeyed the first and 16th but fired nine birdies to bounce back in style from rounds of 75 and 80 in Ireland.
Australia’s Richard Green, England’s Robert Rock, and South Africa’s Jaco van Zyl were two shots off the pace, with Luke Donald delighted with an opening 68.
Defending champion Byeong Hun An held the early lead when he carded four birdies in succession from the fourth, only to bogey the ninth and cover the back nine in 40 to card a level-par 72.