LOUISVILLE Kentucky (Reuters) - Former world number one Lee Westwood, still hunting his first major title, gave his Ryder Cup prospects a massive boost as he charged into contention for the PGA Championship on Thursday.
The Englishman is on the outside looking in as he bids to earn selection for the Sept. 26-28 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland but gave European captain Paul McGinley plenty to think about with his sizzling form in the opening round.
Westwood, who has featured in the biennial team competition eight times in a row, fired a superb six-under-par 65 at Valhalla Golf Club to share the early lead with American journeyman Kevin Chappell.
"I played well all day," Westwood told reporters after piling up nine birdies, a bogey and a double at the par-four first, his 10th hole of the day. "I got off to a nice, steady start.
"Hit a lot of good shots. Hit a lot of fairways. Putted very nicely and just really carried on from the final round last week. It was a good round of golf."
Westwood closed with a 63 to tie for 19th place at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio on Sunday, a timely reminder that his game was in much better shape than his scoring earlier that week had indicated.
"Last week was a big week for me," said the 41-year-old Englishman, who has won 23 times on the European Tour. "Going into last week, I felt like I turned the corner. I was starting to swing it a lot better.
"There's no good unless you start converting it into low rounds. The first three rounds were frustrating, because I played a lot better than three over par. Then obviously I got it going the final day, shot 63.
"Then obviously tried to keep it low key in the practice rounds (at Valhalla), carry that momentum through to the first round, which I've managed to do, made nine birdies."
RELYING IN PICKS
Westwood was also delighted to boost his chances of qualifying automatically for the European Ryder Cup team, instead of having to rely on being one of McGinley's three wildcard picks.
"I wouldn't be a million miles away with a good week this week," Westwood said. "That's what I'm trying to do. I'm still trying to qualify for the team to free up a pick for Paul. I don't want to rely on a pick."I always think that there comes a bit more pressure if you're a selection, as well, obviously, because you've got to try and sort of justify your pick almost. And I don't want to be in that position."
The top nine in the points list at the end of this month qualify automatically for Europe's title defence against the United States in Scotland, with McGinley then completing his 12-man team with three captain's choices.
Westwood has slipped to 34th in the world after riding high at the top of the rankings three years ago, and sits seven spots of automatic qualification via the European world points list.
"I've had chats with Paul and he said, 'You know, try and show some form.' I'm leading a major this week, so I'm ticking that box for him," said Westwood.
"And I think he probably looks back at my record and sees that I've played eight, so knows that I've got a fair amount of experience in Ryder Cups."
Heading into this week, the automatic Ryder Cup qualifying positions for Europe are occupied by Rory McIlroy, Victor Dubuisson, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn, Graeme McDowell and Jamie Donaldson.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)