x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rookie Kulacz hits purple patch

The Australian, who earned his European Tour playing card from last year's Qualifying School, snatched a shock lead with a run of 11 birdies.

Rick Kulacz shot 11 birdies yesterday and was one shot away from equalling the course record.
Rick Kulacz shot 11 birdies yesterday and was one shot away from equalling the course record.

ABU DHABI // The Australian rookie Rick Kulacz, who earned his European Tour playing card by shooting a nerveless 64 in the final round of last year's Qualifying School, went one better yesterday to snatch a shock lead at the halfway stage of the Abu Dhabi Championship in the capital.

Kulacz, 24, rattled in an astonishing 11 birdies on the way to a splendid 63 - one stroke off Henrik Stenson's course record set in 2006 - to come from well down the chasing pack in mid afternoon to be one stroke ahead at sundown. Playing in the last group of the second day, the youngster - who was inspired to take up the game after getting out of bed as an asthmatic three-year-old who could not sleep and watching Greg Norman on television - found himself holding a red hot putter.

"Everything just seemed to go in - it was one of those days," said Kulacz. He confessed to being unsure of how he will cope today with the pressure of going out last at the head of a high-class field alongside the vastly more experienced Sergio Garcia. Garcia, who is still only 30 years of age, but winner of 19 professional titles, has so far overcome the handicap of a painful wrist to get himself in contention at 11 under with the Republic of Ireland's Shane Lowry and Sweden's Peter Hanson.

Those Garcia victories have been spread fairly evenly around the important venues on the global golfing calendar but the Spaniard appreciates that a significant gap on his resume is a Middle East title. "It would be great to add the Desert Swing to my list," said the Spaniard after adding a solid five-under par round of 67 to his 66 on the opening day. "I've been close here when I finished third, I've had some top-10 finishes in Doha and I've gone close in Dubai too. So it would be nice to do it this year and I'm in a strong position to do it here."

Garcia sustained his injury on his last visit to the UAE for the first staging of the Dubai World Championship and has found it hard to practise in the intervening close-season. He was mildly surprised to be setting the pace for much of the day in the fifth battle for the Falcon Trophy. "The confidence level maybe wasn't as high as it needed to be when I arrived but when you get into a big tournament your body tends to change a bit," he said.

"My wrist hurt a little on one shot in the first round but I didn't have many problems with it." Lowry, 22, who turned professional after his tremendous home victory as an amateur in last year's Irish Open, confessed to a mixture of delight and disbelief after his efforts so far. "Only one bogey in two rounds - that's very unlike me," he enthused. "I played lovely and I haven't made too many mistakes."

The outstanding young prospect capped his flawless 65 by holing a remarkable 50ft putt for his seventh birdie of the day on the 16th which for him was the short seventh hole. Hanson has not yet dropped a shot and after adding a 67 to his opening 66. "My performance was very similar to yesterday but I had to fight a bit more today and make a couple of good up-and-downs to stay bogey-free," he said.

Tied two shots off the pace are Germany's Martin Kaymer, champion here in 2008, England's Chris Wood and Rhys Davies of Wales while there are five men on nine under par including Rory McIlroy and first round leader Ian Poulter. @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae Today, Showsports 3 from 12noon