A year ago, Ludvig Åberg was rising to the summit of the amateur golf rankings without anybody bar dedicated followers of the sport being particularly aware of who he was. He could have wandered among the Wentworth galleries at the PGA Championship in blissful anonymity.
To describe Åberg’s subsequent rise as meteoric feels like an understatement. He arrived in England for the 2023 staging of the DP World Tour’s flagship event with praise ringing in his ears from Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland. After his wildcard selection for Europe’s Ryder Cup team, Åberg is the talk of world golf.
His pairing with McIlroy and Hovland for the opening rounds at Wentworth – with Gareth Bale among those watching – endorsed his newfound stardom. Åberg’s total of 68 outscored Hovland by one and was four better than McIlroy could muster over the West Course. The 23-year-old Swede continues to take everything in his stride.
“That was great,” said Åberg. “A little bit more people than I’m used to following me around. It was really fun playing with those two guys. Obviously the level of golf that they can do is pretty amazing and for me to watch that is pretty cool.
“I was kind of walking around almost pinching myself in the arm on the fairways but I really enjoyed it. I am proud of the way I handled it today.”
This, of course, is small beer compared with Rome at the end of this month, when European and American fans will whip the atmosphere towards an almighty din. Åberg became a professional only in June; his apparently unflappable nature really is quite something. “He is ready,” declared Hovland. “He certainly is not scared of any moment.
“Obviously this week is a big event, a very historic event and we all want to do well here. But I think especially after the trip we had to Rome [at the start of this week] and getting to spend some time together, see the course, I think we are all a little bit in Ryder Cup mindset. So it is a little bit weird to have to have two thoughts going at the same time.”
Åberg’s day would have been even better but for a pulled drive that flew out of bounds at the 17th. He could do no better than a double-bogey seven. Still, a run of five birdies in a row from the 11th and another at the last meant he was not unduly affected by the error. “I feel like this golf course is pretty straightforward,” Åberg said.
“If you put the ball in front of you off the tee, you get a lot of mid-irons. Luckily today I hit a few nice ones and obviously made a few putts as well. I think that’s what I’ve got to keep doing and just take it for what it is.” It sounds and looks oh-so simple.
All 12 of Luke Donald’s European team are in action at Wentworth. Thick rough, which is also in place in Italy, looks deliberate with the biennial clash in mind. Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood delivered rounds of 69 in each other’s company, while Sepp Straka’s 70 was equalled by Donald. “Your game needs to be sharp out there,” said Lowry.
Marcus Helligkilde raced to the top of a leaderboard courtesy of a 64. The Dane delivered 10 birdies in his eight-under-par total. “I was hitting it terrible on the range,” Helligkilde said. “I asked my coach, ‘What should I do?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, you’re probably going to play great.’ So that was what happened. This is one of the best events I have ever played in. I love being out here.”
Those who struggled included Billy Horschel, who slipped to a 75. Francesco Molinari, a former champion here, matched that score.