Lee Westwood opens with 68 at Shell Houston Open

Desert Rat Westwood whistling new dune in Shell Houston Open

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UPDATED:

23:21 GMT, 29 March 2012

The Desert Rat is Lee Westwood's wry
new nickname for himself in honour of the fact he's gone from nowhere to
second in the stats for getting down in two from a greenside bunker.

It is just one more area where he
has improved out of all recognition, and he gave a couple of tasty
examples of his new-found prowess from the sand to close out a tidy 68
in the first round of the Shell Houston Open on Thursday.

Flower power: Westwood made a solid start in the Shell Houston Open

Flower power: Westwood made a solid start in the Shell Houston Open

The first, at his 17th hole, the 8th on the card, saw him judge a 20-yard sand shot to near-perfection.

There was water behind the flag to catch any stroke played thin but, displaying an uncommonly-deft touch, the ball finished 4ft from the hole.

The one that followed at the 9th was even better.

'It's nice standing over a bunker shot and thinking about holing it, but that's how much my confidence has grown playing out of the sand,' he said.

'I was almost disappointed when it finished tap-in distance away.'

Westwood's decision to play just before The Masters was vindicated by the fact he felt a little rusty for most of the round, following a fortnight off.

Early leader: Carl Pettersson hits out of greenside bunker on the 17th

Early leader: Carl Pettersson hits out of greenside bunker on the 17th

'It was good to be able to work through it and post a decent score,' he said.

'Now the idea over the next three rounds is to continue to get sharper for Augusta and hopefully get myself in contention at the weekend.'

Westwood finished three shots off the early lead held by Swede Carl Pettersson and former Masters champion Angel Cabrera.

On top: Cabrera had a share of the lead

On top: Cabrera had a share of the lead

Playing alongside Westwood, Graeme McDowell tarnished a good round with a couple of loose holes but was still happy with a 70.

'It's been a while since I've headed to Augusta with the nice, high ball flight with my irons that you need at the Masters,' said the Northern Irishman, who finished runner-up behind Tiger Woods last week.

Paul Casey had a good round going too at four under after 10, only for his lack of competitive golf following three months out with shoulder trouble to leave a couple of ugly sixes on his card.

He was one under with a hole to play when a storm broke and 1.25in of rain was dumped on the course. Play was abandoned for the day with late starters like Darren Clarke, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington having played just a handful of holes.