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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Jon Rahm spurred on by rare chance to defend DP World Tour Championship on Day 1

Spaniard one shot off lead held jointly by compatriot Adrian Otaegui and Jordan Smith

Jon Rahm proved on Day 1 why he is the man to beat at the DP World Tour Championship. EPA
Jon Rahm proved on Day 1 why he is the man to beat at the DP World Tour Championship. EPA

Jon Rahm made a strong start to the defence of his DP World Tour Championship title on Thursday, shooting a 5-under-par opening round of 67 at the Earth Course.

It left the Spaniard one shot off the lead held jointly by compatriot Adrian Otaegui and Jordan Smith. Fellow Englishman Danny Willett also starts Round 2 on 5-under.

Rahm has missed out on defending titles twice on tour so far this season – at Torrey Pines and in Ireland – but is hoping to make it third time lucky in the final event.

“I am defending champion, [and] I like the thought that I'm the only one who can win it two years in a row, so I’ve been keeping that in mind,” said Rahm, who would become the second player to retain the trophy, after Henrik Stenson in 2014.

“It's really important to keep the ball in the fairway off the tee. So if I keep hitting the driver like I did today, I'll definitely have a chance Sunday.”

England's Smith was the early clubhouse leader after picking up six shots on the final six holes – he eagled 14 – for a 66.

“You can just take a lot of confidence into the next few days,” said Smith, who has won once before on the European Tour.

“Me being 44th in the Race to Dubai, I can go out and go for it, not too much pressure. Just enjoy it, enjoy the next few days and carry on with the same play that I had today.”

Smith seized the lead from a resurgent Willett, who continues to show signs of form after slipping from the world’s top 10 two years ago to 462nd this May. Two weeks ago, the 2016 Masters champion finished tied-7th in Turkey.

“It's a shame it's the last event of the season,” Willett said. “Again, we're going to play 54 holes left to the year and just play until the bell goes and see where we finish.”

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Read more:

DP World Tour Championship: Here are the pairings and tee times for action in the second round

Tommy Fleetwood thrilled he is in hunt for Race to Dubai title at DP World Tour Championship

John McAuley: Race to Dubai title at stake but Molinari 'can't be mad' at best friend Fleetwood

DP World Tour Championship: Take a look at the pairings and tee times for the first round

Jon Rahm remains the man to beat in Dubai after a steady – but not spectacular – season

John McAuley: All you need to know about 2018 DP World Tour Championship

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Rory McIlroy lurks two shots further back. The Northern Irishman, a two-time winner of the event, shot a 69 that featured three birdies and two bogeys in seven holes on the front nine. He closed with a birdie.

“That's the best I've played in a while,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I got a little bit better last week in South Africa, and then again, feel like there was a few improvements today.

“If I drive it well, it feeds through the rest of my game. That club has been off for a lot of this year. I've had big misses with it and big misses at the wrong times that have cost me. It's good to see it back under control.”