Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 3 April 2020

Brooks Koepka defies lengthy absence to march into contention at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

World No 1 sits third after shooting a six-under par 66 in the opening round at the National course

Brooks Koepka said he felt like he had never been away after signing for a 6-under par 66 in Abu Dhabi in his first competitive round for 89 days.

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA is the world No 1’s comeback tournament after three months out with a knee injury.

It left him two shots behind the joint leaders, Shaun Norris and Renato Paratore, at the end of day one at the National Course.

“I’ve known I've been hitting it really well, and putting really well for a couple weeks,” Koepka said. “I think the first day I picked up the club, it was the same thing. It felt like I hadn’t left.

“I’ve done it for years and years. You don’t forget how to swing the golf club.”

Koepka has held the status of the top-ranked player in the game for 44 weeks since winning the PGA Championship – his fourth major title – at Bethpage last May.

Rory McIlroy might have closed the gap in the time he has been away, but Koepka has retained the No 1 spot despite his 12-week absence from the course.

As such, if he feels like he is slipping straight back into the old routine on his return to the fairways, it is a good place for him to be.

The 29-year-old American says he refused to rush back after surgery for an injury that he had described as “excruciating,” and that inhibited him during his fine run last year.

“The only thing is if the injury actually prevents from you swinging the golf club, and I wasn’t going to swing a golf club until I knew I was able to do that,” Koepka said.

“I got the green light from everybody to be able to start hitting balls. I did, and it’s fine. I’m very pleased with how I played today. I’m excited, and it will be nice to be able to practice again.

“I haven’t been able to practice. Last year, I just couldn’t practice. It was too painful, and I wasn’t able to do the things I wanted to do.”

Playing in the showpiece three-ball with the two previous winners of this tournament, Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood, Koepka made a fine start to his 2020 campaign.

He was 4-under after nine holes – the group played the back nine first – having birdied the 10th, 15th, 17th and 18th. He gained further shots at the second and third, before closing with six pars.

Lowry’s defence of the Falcon Trophy started with a 2-under par round of 70, while Fleetwood, who was champion in the capital in 2017 and 2018, was subdued in shooting 71.

Sergio Garcia was a shot further back from Koepka, on 5-under, leaving him tied for fifth at the end of round one. In six appearances in the capital, the Spaniard has not finished outside the top 20, and he says he feels at home in these conditions.

“I’ve always enjoyed the desert,” said Garcia, who has won two legs of the Desert Swing – Qatar and Dubai – in the past.

“It feels like you can hit different kind of shots. Usually I am fairly good in the wind, and usually it gets a little breezy here, so that kind of helps me game a little bit.

“I was happy with a nice start for the year. It was a very solid day. Obviously, I would love to have parred the last, but unfortunately that didn't happen.”

Updated: January 16, 2020 06:39 PM

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