ABU DHABI // Charl Schwartzel upstaged four reigning major champions and the world No 1 yesterday to take the overnight lead in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
The South African recorded an eight-under-par 64 to claim a one-shot advantage over Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner, while Graeme McDowell, the current US Open champion, was a further shot away in third.
Schwartzel had hit the front after notching three successive birdies on the turn for home when a lapse at the 17th saw him fall back alongside Harrington on seven under par.
And he almost blew the chance of the outright lead when his attempt to reach the long closing hole in two drifted into thick greenside rough.
Schwartzel managed to extract his ball to about three feet from the hole and sank the putt to move back ahead of the Irishman.
And the South African said his early-season form had been sharpened by top-five finishes in all four legs of his own country’s month-long swing. “It is certainly an advantage to be committed to four events at home before coming to a big tournament like this one,” Schwartzel said. “A lot of the players here are in their first event of the year and that makes a big difference.”
Schwartzel, 26, has big ambitions for 2011 and if he continues in the form he has shown so far he could well achieve them.
He regards a world ranking in the top 10 as attainable and he takes inspiration from his compatriot Louis Oosthuizen’s emphatic victory in last year’s British Open in his own quest for a first major title.
There are a cluster of major champions bunched up behind the leader, with Martin Kaymer, the US PGA winner who is defending his Abu Dhabi title, in sixth behind Harrington and McDowell, who was joined in third place by the Swedish duo of Alexander Noren and Niclas Fasth, who both also shot a six-under-par total of 66.
Phil Mickelson, who defends his US Masters crown in April, was not disgraced in his first competitive round for eight weeks and stands at one under par, just ahead of Oosthuizen.
Joining Kaymer on five under is Danny Willet, who performed here as an amateur only 12 months ago.
Lee Westwood, the world No 1 and probably the best of the currently active players not to have won a major, began his campaign solidly and was four under through 10 holes, but could not sustain that momentum and had to settle for a 69 to be five behind Schwartzel.
McDowell came from nowhere to claim his place on the early leaderboard. The Irishman had the biggest of smiles in front of an appreciative gallery around the 18th green as he rolled in a putt for a four to finish with five successive birdies.
The hero of Pebble Beach and Celtic Manor in Wales during the Ryder Cup was disappointed to be only even par at the turn but came home in a dazzling sequence of 3,2,3,3,4. “That always feels nice when you finish win a run of birdies,” said McDowell, who was relieved to avoid a penalty for touching his ball but not moving it when preparing to hit his approach to the 18th.
Kaymer demonstrated that he will again be the man to beat on a National Course that has served him with two victories and a runners-up spot in the last three years. “Five under par is a fantastic start to my season,” he said. “I have put myself in a good position already.
“I was happy with my ball striking but really surprised with my putting. That was very good for the first round. I was able to read the greens and hole some good ones.”
Mickelson had no reason to complain after his steady return to action. “I kept the ball in play off the tee and hit a lot of good iron shots,” he said. “The problem was I didn’t make too many putts. That’s something I’ll have to work on for tomorrow.”
“All things considered it was a good day, even though the score doesn’t show that.”