Abu Dhabi: Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood made a flying start to his title defence in Abu Dhabi with a masterful 66 for six-under par to share a first-round lead with Japan’s Hideto Tanihara in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Thursday.
Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti with a bogey-free 67, following a birdie and an eagle on the last two holes, was second on five-under with Belgian Thomas Pieters, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, England’s Ross Fisher and Australian Sam Brazel.
Scotland’s Richie Ramsay, compatriot Stephen Gallacher and Finn Mikko Ilonen were tied at four-under with their round of 68 along with six others.
Twelve months ago, Englishman Fleetwood was just another golfer on tour trying to make his mark. One year down the line and here he is rubbing shoulders with the likes of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy.
While most would have been startled to tee off in the company of such big names, Fleetwood was not only unfazed but he also brought his best game. He, who built on the victory here last year to go on to win the Race to Dubai, remained calm and composed throughout his round. The winner of the 2017 ‘Players Player Award’ was straight into the action with a birdie at the par five 10th hole — his first hole. He then made further ground on the 13th and 18th with birdies.
The 26-year-old moved to four-under with birdie on the par-five second. Two more in the remaining seven holes and Fleetwood was all smiles as he signed his card at the end of his round.
Johnson, who finished runner-up to Fleetwood in the tournament last year, had three birdies and a bogey on his front first nine. However, what hurt him most was three bogeys on the back nine. Two back-to-back on three and four before finishing off with another one on the last to settle on even-par.
McIlroy, playing his first outing since Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last October, ended on 3-under.
World No. 71 Tanihara, who played in last week’s EurAsia Cup, had a pair of opening birdies at 12 and 13 before adding two more at 15 and 17 to turn in 32. He added another on the second and then finished the ninth with another birdie to share the top spot.
A beaming Fleetwood acknowledged that he was thrilled to start off in the marquee grouping with Johnson and McIlroy and then to stay ahead of them on the day.
“I think during my career, I’m going to struggle to find a better three ball, really,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long I play, that might be the best one I get.
“It’s great. All you can do is concentrate on your own game and that’s kind of what you always do. You set out to play the best you can. I don’t know what I’ll do in my career and nobody knows what the future holds but I think these two might be going down in the history books, so it will be nice to tell them that I played these two in a three-ball.”
Fleetwood acknowledged that it was terrific to pick up from where he had left off last year and credited his success to ball control.
“I had control of my ball really from the get-go,” he said. “I just sort of did what you need to do well around here to get a good score. I drove it well. Got away with a couple of tee shots. The rough is actually thick in parts. You think the rough is OK at times but other times it will catch you out.”
Fleetwood was also perfect on his greens in regulation.
“Yeah, 18 greens, that doesn’t happen very often so it is nice to do it around here,” he said. “My pace putting was really good and I didn’t put myself under any stress at all. So all in all, it was a very good morning.”