Abu Dhabi: Renato Paratore reeled of four birdies on the final four holes in the morning and Shaun Norris produced an afternoon masterclass as the underdogs upstaged the big boys on day one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday.
The Italian Paratore belied his world ranking of 273 to outshine the likes of world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former Masters champion Sergio Garcia with an eight-under-par round of 64.
His score was matched by South Africa’s world No. 60 Norris, one of the late starters, who rattled in a tremendous nine birdies, with his round only let down by one bogey on the par-three seventh.
“I hit the ball nicely and gave myself a couple of chances,” said Norris. “But then I made couple on eight and nine and I just started feeling like it’s snowballing.”
While the South African may have one eye on the big prize, he is also keeping his feet on the ground. “It will be a dream-come-true to win a tournament or European Tour event, never mind the Rolex Series,” he added. “I’m sticking to my guns. Stick to the same gameplan and just go out there and have fun.”
Paratore feels he has the game to go all the way this weekend after his 64, that also included a dropped shot on the seventh hole, with his putting making up for some errant drives.
“I’m pretty happy with the short game today,” he said. “I start really well and I was really confident on the putting. Then I just focused my mind on the good things and to keep making birdies. I have been working on my short game and more on my body in the gym, which has helped me all-round to try to close out the weekend.”
"I am always looking to win in every event and this is no different. We will see where it leaves me come Sunday"
Koepka, starting on the 10th hole, got off to a flyer and was four-under at the turn. He kept a blemish-free card and picked up two more birdies on the back nine to finish on six-under. The American’s playing partners were defending champion Shane Lowry and two-time Abu Dhabi winner Tommy Fleetwood, but the big Irishman could only manage a two-under 70, with a costly double bogey on the 12th hole — his third. England’s Fleetwood fared a little worse with a one-under 71 that included three birdies and two bogeys.
Koepka was content with his round and insists he will just stick to his gameplay as he bids to claim the Falcon Trophy.
“I just get out there and practice, like I do every week,” he said. “I am always looking to win in every event and this is no different. We will see where it leaves me come Sunday.
“I just want to dedicate myself for the next five years and put my stamp on the game.”
Kopeka also admitted he would love to see more of Abu Dhabi if he can find the time. “I enjoy travelling and I love seeing different cultures and cities around the world,” he said. “Most of the time I don’t get much of a chance as I am out there trying to win, but whenever I get a chance, I go see the sights.”
Young Dubai-based sensation Josh Hill had a bit of a yo-yo round. The amateur schoolkid was invited to participate after he became the record holder of the youngest player on tour to win an official ranking event — he shattered the record in Al Ain at the age of 15. Standing a towering — staggering — 6ft 1in, the adolescent kept his cool to clock his fifth birdie of the day on the 18th, but a mixed bag of five bogeys and an expensive double on the ninth means he signed for a two-over 74. However, the experience of playing with the big boys will mean more than his scorecard.
“I was shaken a bit on the first tee, but I tried to keep my head down and I will go again tomorrow,” he said.
1 R PARATORE (ITA) -8
1 S NORRIS (RSA) -8
3 B KOEPKA (USA) -6
3 J SCRIVENER (AUS) -6
5 S GARCIA (ESP) -5
5 R CABRERA BELLO (ESP) -5
5 Z MURRAY (AUS) -5
5 Z LOMBARD (RSA) -5
5 K KITAYAMA ((USA) -5
5 H LI (CHI) -5