Tyrrell Hatton had been talking all week about his struggle for motivation as he prepared to defend his Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship crown at the new venue of Yas Links.
However, when the action proper began, the Englishman was smiling and striding with purpose once again as he posted a six-under 66 for his first round in the UAE capital, to sit alongside Victor Perez near the top of the leaderboard as the early starters finished their rounds.
However, that was still three shots behind runaway leader Scott Jamieson, who fired in a course-record 63 — something that will be difficult to beat all weekend as the winds are forecast to pick up off the sea surrounding Yas Island. The Scotsman posted nine birdies to sign for a blemish-free nine-under and a comfortable clubhouse lead.
“I felt solid all day,” Jamieson said. “I had something like eight weeks off and when you return you are always on edge. But I birdied the first and we were way. I had one bad tee shot but I recovered well and put in a good round.
The Scotsman is delighted to keep up his good form after a long break. “I am comfortable with where my game is and just hoped it turned up after eight weeks off. You have to hit the ground running as the Desert Swing as it can dictate your season, really. If you miss the first couple of cuts, you can feel miles behind. but thankfully I made sure I was ready to go.”
While Jamieson held on to his lead, it did come under threat in the afternoon with both Ryder Cup legend Ian Poulter and Japanese upstart Takumi Kanaya getting within one stroke before fading as the winds picked up.
Englishman Poulter was undone by a costly double bogey on the 16th — the only blemish on his card along with eight birdies — and Kanaya dropped two shots on the back nine after incredibly hitting eagles at holes two and six.
They had to settle for a share of fourth as Norway’s world No. 7 Viktor Hovland fared best of the afternoon starters, with his eight-under 64 giving him sole possession of second spot, one stroke behind Jamieson, and Belgian Thomas Pieters was third with a solid 67.
“It is a nice course,” said Hovland after his first taste of Yas Links in competitive surroundings. “I didn’t hit it my best shots today and there are a few tricky holes out there, but I got away with a lot as my putting was great. I love the grass here and I holed a lot of putts to get me out of trouble and shake off my jet lag. I read the greens to perfection.”
Hovland is aiming for a third win in four outings and is preparing for a challenge over the weekend as the winds get higher. “I am glad I shot a low one today,” he said. “You can’t control the weather, but you can control your game, play the best you can and know when to force things and when to rein it in a little.”
It was a different story for star-billing Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa.
The Northern Irishman struggled to a level-par 72. with the four-time major winner posting a round peppered with four bogeys and four birdies for a tie of 74th spot in the field of 132.
Morikawa, the 2021 Open Championship, DP World Tour Championship and Race to Dubai title winner, was among the afternoon starters and got off to a great start — with birdie his first hole. But he failed to kick on in blustery conditions and a bogey on 17 and double on the eighth wiped out his two birdies and he signed for a one-over 73.
Local interest was led by 17-year-old amateur Josh Hill, who carded an impressive one-under 71, while Emirati professional Ahmed Al Musharrekh posted a seven-over 79. UAE No. 1 amateur Ahmad Skaik was on one-ver through 17 when play was called off for bad light.
1 Scott Jamieson -9
2 Viktor Hovland -8
3 Thomas Pieters -7
T4 Victor Perez -6
T4 Tyrrell Hatton -6
T4 James Morrison -6
T4 Takumi Kanaya -6
T4 Ian Poulter -6
T9 Charl Schwartzel -5
T9 Thomas Detry -5
T9 Shane Lowry -5
T9 Ross Fisher -5
T9 Markus Kinhult -5