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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Tommy Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara lead Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship after Round 1 

Defending champion and Japanese player shoot a blemish-free 6-under-par 66 at the National Course

Tommy Fleetwood of England plays during round one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club/ Karim Sahib / AFP
Tommy Fleetwood of England plays during round one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club/ Karim Sahib / AFP

Tommy Fleetwood set the early clubhouse lead on Day 1 in Abu Dhabi, as defending champions would generally like to do.

By the close of play around five hours later, he was still there.

“Very good,” was the Englishman’s take on a first-round 66, 12 months after he closed with a 67 to seal a one-shot victory and ignite his breakout year. “Very stress free.”

His scorecard backed that up. Heading out early on Thursday morning alongside world No 1 Dustin Johnson and the returning Rory McIlroy, Fleetwood opened with a birdie, at the 10th, then reeled off five more before departing the National Course on 6-under par. There was not a single shot dropped.

Only Japan’s Hideto Tanihara matched him late on. A 14-time winner in his homeland but perhaps not necessarily well known to the more casual golf fan, Tanihara’s 66 contained six birdies also and no bogeys either.

Behind the head two lies a posse of five players one shot back, including Ross Fisher, Thomas Pieters and Bernd Wiesberger: three of Fleetwood’s victorious teammates from last week’s EurAsia Cup. Seeking to add a second Falcon Trophy come Sunday to that freshly acquired team title, Fleetwood seemed simply to pick up where he left off in Malaysia.

“Played really well from start to finish,” he said, somewhat unsurprisingly. “Felt like I did what you need to do well around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons. But you can't really be too greedy all the time. Then my pace putting was really good. Just basically did what you need to do to get a good score around the golf course.”

Right in his groove, Fleetwood was freewheeling. He did admit to “getting away” with a tee shot here and there, but recovered sufficiently to hit every green in regulation. As he noted post-round, that doesn't happen very often.

“At one point, I was trying to figure it out,” Fleetwood said. “I couldn't figure out if I missed one or not. It's a good golf course to hit 18 greens around. There's a couple of shots really: seven, the par 3, widest green in the world, so that was kind of a missed green, when I hit it to about 200 foot.

“But just a good ball-striking round and nice to start the year off like that.”

Tanihara probably felt the same. He is competing in only his second season on the European Tour, buoyed by a steady debut campaign in 2017. Last March, he made waves by reaching the semi-final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where in his group he defeated Jordan Spieth.

Eventually, Tanihara was knocked out by Johnson, who had climbed to world No 1 a few weeks previously. On Thursday in Abu Dhabi, the American posted an even-par 72. Defeated back then in the Texan desert, among the sands of the UAE Tanihara was six shots better.

“I didn't make any bogeys,” he said. “That's the key today. It's a tough course here. Didn't hit the fairways so much, but I'm thinking more about playing smart golf and making good putts.”

It remains early days, but Tanihara is seeking to some day in the near future to match compatriot Isao Aoki, who triumphed on Europe’s main circuit almost 35 years ago. Why not this week?

“Aoki, he won on the European Tour, and I'm just trying to focus on winning on the European Tour,” Tanihara said.

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