When the 7.40am three-ball went off from the hidden-away 10th tee in the opening round of the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA, the grass was damp with dew and the air rent with machismo.
Match 13 was not so much the tournament’s marquee group as it was The Alpha Group. Teeing it up first was the world No 1, Dustin Johnson, a golfing power turbine who hit one drive last summer 439 yards. Four-hundred and thirty-nine yards. In one go.
Next up, Rory McIlroy, who led the European Tour’s driving distance stats last season, with an average length of 318.5 yards, despite nursing a rib injury for much of the campaign. He looked svelte, too, after taking over 100 days off to repair that injury, and returning to the course for the first time with an extra two kilos of muscle.
And then, bringing up the rear, Tommy Fleetwood. Just the world No 18, and the leading player on the Tour in 2017.
The defending Abu Dhabi champion hardly tickles it. He was 38th of the 208 players listed on the driving stats for the Tour last season, with an average drive of a not-exactly-modest 299.7 yards.
Just as the stats might have forecast, the opening shot of his 2018 campaign ended around 20 yards short of his illustrious playing partners, but perfectly central in the fairway. He laid up, pitched his third close, and walked off their first green with a birdie. The other guys, the two golfing ubermensch, had to make do with pars.
Such was the way of the round. Fleetwood had to hit his second shot first a lot of the time. But he hit a perfect 18 greens in regulation, stretching his tally for that particular statistic to 84 from his last 90 holes around the National Course. And to think, he was not much of a fan of this course until he won here 12 months ago.
“It is easy when it is like that, because you are not even going to be close,” Fleetwood said of the idea of trying to keep up with his colleagues off the tee. “It is not like you are playing with someone you might want to out-pip. I would be fighting a losing battle to start with.
“I wasn’t hitting it short, it just seems that way. They have a much different flight, they start it a lot higher, with a lot less spin, and it is going forward a lot quicker than mine.
“I hardly look at what they’re doing, but I like watching them hit tee shots. It is a nice thing to watch.”
Fleetwood signed for a 6-under-par 66, one shot better than he managed on the Thursday last year, when he ended up winning the tournament. Johnson ended with a 72, just as he did on his opening 18 last year, when he finished a stroke behind Fleetwood on his UAE debut.
McIlroy shot a 3-under 69, having made par at the first 11 holes. “Tommy obviously played very well, and I was just trying to hang on to his coattails for most of the round,” McIlroy said.
If his exploits last season, when he won twice on Tour and finished on top in the Race to Dubai, had not already proved it, this was more evidence that Fleetwood rubs along well in the most exalted company.
He enjoyed the experience, too. With due respect, his opening round match was quite the upgrade on last year, when he trod the fairways anonymously alongside David Lipsky, who was 157th in the world at the time, and Kristoffer Broberg, who finished that tournament 215th in the world.
“During my career, I think I’m going to struggle to find a better three-ball,” Fleetwood said of Johnson and McIlroy.
“It doesn’t matter how long I play, I think that might be the best one I get. It is great, but all you can do is concentrate on your own game.
“I don’t know what I’ll do with my career, nobody knowns what the future holds, but I think these two might be going down in the history books.”