Dubai: Thomas Pieters’ first encounter with a golf ball came at the age of five.
Now 27, the Belgian showed how much he has matured into a fine practitioner of the game when upstaging a classy field to seize the opening round’s honours at the 31st Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday.
Pieters, who finished 29th in the Emirates Golf Club’s flagship tournament twelve months ago, braved tough conditions to shoot a five-under 67 for a one-shot lead over American David Lipsky.
The Belgian went into the $3,250,000 tournament as the 10-1 joint-favourite with defending champion Bryson DeChambeau and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, but his first-round performance sent international odds makers scampering to slash his odds in half.
DeChambeau ended the day joint-12th with five other players after carding a two-under 70, while Oosthuizen had to settle for a share of the 17th position with three-time Major winner Padraig Harrington, for a one-under round.
The EGC’s challenging 7,301-yard Majlis Course seriously tested the resolve of Europe’s best golfers with only 30 from a field of 132 breaking par.
“That was pretty tough with the rough being that thick, it was definitely a challenge,” Pieters, who represented Europe in 2016 Ryder Cup, said.
“There’s nothing easy about today, but I found 14 greens, which is always nice in these kind of conditions.
“I thought putting was quite tough because the greens are rock hard. I gave myself plenty of chances and luckily made a few,” he added.
“I’m just looking forward to the next three days.”
Lipsky, who held the clubhouse lead most of the day until Pieters edged into the lead, concurred with the Belgian’s assessment of the course.
“With the way the rough is, and how firm the greens are, you’ve got to hit the fairways, to attack pins,” he said.
“The greens are so firm that coming in from the rough is really tough. It’s hard to get close to these pins and I just tried to give myself as many birdie putts as possible today, easy two-putts for par, very stress-free.”
Lipsky, who hit a solid T30 at last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship thanks to three rounds in the 60s, said his goal was to put himself in contention more often this season.
“I need a little bit more consistency to my game,” said the 31-year-old. “I worked really hard in the off-season with my swing coach and I’m seeing it play dividends right now.”
A posse of 12 players including Japan’s Masahiro Kawamura, American Kurt Kitayama and South Africa’s Shaun Norris were bunched in third place on three-under, throwing open the crucial second’s day’s play where winds are expected to be a factor at the famed Karl Litten-designed course.
1 Thomas Pieters (BEL) -5
2 David Lipsky (USA) 68 -4
3 Dean Burmester (RSA) -3
3 Lucas Herbert (AUS) -3
3 Robert Karlsson (SWE) -3
3 Masahiro Kawamura (JPN) -3
3 Kurt Kitayama (USA) -3
3 Soren Kjeldsen (DEN) -3
3 Romain Langasque (FRA) -3
3 Shaun Norris (RSA) -3
3 Matthieu Pavon (FRA) -3
3 Eddie Pepperell (ENG) -3
3 Kalle Samooja (FIN) -3
3 Ashun Wu (CHN) -3