x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Dubai Desert Classic: Sterne warning for the rest of the field

South African leads Dubai Desert Classic after first round as 100 players shoot under par at Emirates Golf Club, writes John McAuley.

Richard Sterne of South Africa was two strokes shy of tying a course record at the Emirates Golf Club on Thursday. Sterne fired a 10-under 62 and holds a one-shot lead at the Dubai Desert Classic.
Richard Sterne of South Africa was two strokes shy of tying a course record at the Emirates Golf Club on Thursday. Sterne fired a 10-under 62 and holds a one-shot lead at the Dubai Desert Classic.

DUBAI // If this was the Majlis course running at 90 per cent, then the green staff should simply sit back and take in the rest of the tournament.

"They're just a wee bit off perfection," said Stephen Gallacher when asked about pre-tournament concerns surrounding the condition of the putting surfaces.

"You can't shoot 10-under or 9-under with bad greens."

Evidently so. Gallacher, making the most of an early morning that provided beautifully benign weather and supreme scoring opportunities, posted the latter to finish his first round one stroke worse off than the leader Richard Sterne.

They were not exceptions to the rule. In all, 100 of the 132 players broke par on this considerably agreeable opening day of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

"Normally 17 or 18 [under] wins around here," said Sterne, who managed 10 birdies and threatened the course record despite not having picked up a club competitively in four weeks.

"I would imagine this year, somewhere around 21."

So much for the unease about the honed habitat. Emirates Golf Club has endured an extensive revamp since summer, with a new irrigation system installed and greens extended.

Such was the anxiety that certain areas would not be shipshape coming into the final tournament in the Desert Swing, the European Tour last week formally notified its players to expect some choppy waters.

They need not have bothered.

"I scratch my head slightly," said Paul Casey about that letter from the tournament director. "I have no idea what he was talking about."

Casey, having already taken in Durban, Abu Dhabi and Doha this season in his quest to gatecrash the top 50 in the rankings, made the most of the circumstances to shoot a 6-under par 66.

"It's the best conditioned course I've played this year by far," said the world No 120. "When you have as good a course as this the guys are going to go bananas."

There were a few fruity scores all right. Aside from Sterne and Gallacher, Scott Jamieson, Tommy Fleetwood and Chris Doak enjoyed their respective forages, each carding rounds of 65.

Meanwhile, Casey's coterie includes bright young things in Matteo Manassero and Seung-yul Noh, while Lee Westwood, the field's highest-ranked player, leads a bloated posse on 5-under alongside Mark O'Meara, one of only five major champions competing this week.

The performance of the day, though, undoubtedly belonged to Sterne. The South African has battled serious back injury to feature consistently on the tour and yesterday's 62 represented some sort of reward.

The course record, set by compatriot Ernie Els way back in 1994, would have constituted a nice little gift, too. At least he could find consolation in the fact the event no longer awards a BMW for that particular feat.

"I always thought [the record] was an impossible task," Sterne said. "With my luck I would've shot 60 and there would be no car."

Sterne, a five-time winner on Europe's man circuit but without a trophy since 2009, said his round could have been "quite special" had he converted sublime approaches to two par-5s on his front nine.

His inability to better a birdie was not mirrored by those behind him. Falcon may be the bird of choice in these parts, but here it was the eagle perched proudly at the top of the food chain.

There were 12 in total - seven on the 13th - again making a mockery of those pre-tournament concerns.

"It was a mountain out of a molehill," said Gallacher, boasting eagles on six and 13. "I came out here over Christmas and the greens were shut as they were long and sandy.

"But they always seem to get them in brilliant condition. There are a few problem areas, but they roll that well you don't even see them. It looks brilliant as well now. It's manicured to the nth degree."

Gallacher's synopsis that "you can't win it today, but can lose it" would appear to apply to Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, the big-hitting Spaniards.

The duo is 4-under and 3-under respectively, normally promising opening scores. Yesterday, though, it carried a sense of irritation.

Sterne could already prove too far in front, yet with the course playing as it is, he was wise to dampen expectation.

"If it was after day one they give you the trophy, then I would be happy," he said. "But unfortunately that doesn't happen."

Dubai Desert Classic leaderboard

after Thursday's first round

Player, Score, Par

R Sterne 62 -10

S Gallacher 63 -9

T Fleetwood 65 -7

S Jamieson 65 -7

C Doak 65 -7

M Kieffer 66 -6

P Casey 66 -6

R Santos 66 -6

S Noh 66 -6

P Lawrie 66 -6

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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