Alastair Forsyth of Scotland fired a seven under par 65 to lead after the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic, but sensed the unmistakable shadow of defending champion Ernie Els looming large behind him at the Emirates Golf Club.
Forsyth, winner of last season’s Carlsberg Malaysian Open, holds a one stroke lead over the South African but knows he needs to be in top form to stay in front of a player who has won twice on The European Tour International Schedule and twice on the US PGA Tour in 2003.
He said: “Obviously Ernie is sitting there in second place. Normally you can afford to say oh, it doesn’t matter who is behind you but not in the case of Ernie, not the way he has been playing.”
The 27 year old from Paisley looks poised to make his seventh cut from seven starts this year, but his highest finish so far, a tie for 19th, has left him slightly frustrated. He added: “That round’s been coming.
“Tee to green I’ve been playing well all season and just had a little trouble on the greens. The difference today is that I was making birdies and not having to get up and down. I kept the bogeys off my card and that’s the biggest difference.”
Els, twice a champion in Dubai and the course record holder after a quite mesmerising 61 back in 1994, has a record in the UAE that is second to none. His six under par 66 took his total number of sub-par rounds to 19 out of 21 while the other two were both level par 72s. He is now 78 under par for those 21 rounds and a real force to be reckoned with at the Emirates.
When Els is in contented mode, then the rest of the field know they can expect to see his name around the top of the leaderboard. He admitted: “I felt good coming into the event and, basically, I just like coming here. I really enjoy the golf course and the way it is set up. I’ve just signed a two year contract for this year and next year.”
“The Big Easy” launched the defence of his title in grand style, birdieing three of the first four holes to begin the 2003 tournament in much the same way as he finished 2002.
A total of four players are tied on 67, five under par, including Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year, Nick Dougherty. Like Forsyth, he has not missed a cut in 2003 but has designs of a few higher finishes than he has managed so far.
“I’ve played a mixture of everything so far this season” he said. “Unfortunately I keep throwing in the odd 73 or 72, nothing really drastic but enough to prevent me getting a chance to win. I didn’t play that well today but hopefully I am learning the art of scoring.
“It’s almost more satisfying going out and shooting 67 like I did today and not hitting the ball especially well. It’s pleasing to be able to do that. I am gradually getting better and making progress with my coach, Pete Cowen.”
Dougherty’s best finish so far was tied second in the Qatar Masters last year, and the confident young Englishman is returning there next week in search of his first title on The European Tour International Schedule. He said: “Yes, I am definitely going. I love the course. It suits me. Next week might be the one when I win but if I pull out I will never know!”
On the same mark are five players, Robert-Jan Derksen of the Netherlands, Jamie Donaldson of Wales, Finland’s Mikko Ilonen, Greg Owen of England and Germany’s Sven Strûver.