AP Sports Writer
VIRGINIA WATER, England (AP) -Veteran South African Ernie Els used his knowledge of a course he helped redesign to upstage exasperated playing partner Rory McIlroy and take a share of the lead midway through the first round at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth on Thursday.
While the top-ranked McIlroy lost his temper during a 2-over 74 in his first round in Europe in seven months - throwing his club to the ground in despair at one point - Els was his usual relaxed self in making six birdies to join four others in shooting a 68.
Compatriot George Coetzee, Marc Warren of Scotland, Robert Rock of England and Bernd Wiseberger of Austria are level in the clubhouse with Els, who was criticized for making the course too tough after redesigning it in 2010.
"It was almost perfect," said Els, who has made tweaks to certain sections of the course since last year's event. "There's lots of scoring opportunities, more so than last year, so I think guys can go in with the mindset that if they have the right conditions, they can score a good score."
Third-ranked Lee Westwood shot a 70 to sit two strokes off the pace while playing partner Graeme McDowell ended up with a 74 after an unfortunate 8 on the par-5 last.
The 2010 U.S. Open champion was docked two shots after his ball moved as he approached it while in the trees to the right of the fairway.
"How are you supposed to attempt to replace the ball when you don't know the ball is moving in the first place?" McDowell said. "I probably should have called the referee - I know what to do in the future, put it that way."
No. 2 Luke Donald, who can supplant McIlroy at the top of the rankings by defending his title here, was among the afternoon starters.
McIlroy missed the cut in his last tournament - The Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass - and is in danger of doing the same at the European Tour's flagship event if he continues to struggle on the greens.
The 23-year-old Northern Irishman was 2 under after seven holes, following an eagle on No. 4 and a birdie three holes later, but he bogeyed four holes around the turn. After playing a poor third shot on the par-5 12th, moments after seeing his second fly out of bounds, McIlroy hurled his club in frustration.
"You think about the par 5s and you should be taking advantage there," McIlroy said. "Standing on the first tee, 3 or 4 under is the worst you should be shooting."
That's exactly what the 42-year-old Els did, a day after predicting low scoring in the warm sunshine this week.
The two-time U.S. Open champion made a 12-foot birdie putt at the par-3 second and reached the turn in 4 under after picking up further shots at Nos. 4, 6 and 7. He was the clear front runner after birdying Nos. 12 and 13 but bogeyed the next two holes and made a fine up and down from a greenside bunker on the last to avoid dropping from the leaderboard.
"I was trying to get something under 70 as I knew it was going to be perfect conditions but it's still tricky," Els said. "If you're marginally off, the course penalizes you."