While the swirling wind made scoring tricky for many of the competitors in the first round of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, Keith Horne, who grew up on the Durban coast in South Africa, found little problem as he moved smoothly into the lead.
The 34 year old, who plays on his native Sunshine Tour and the Asian Tour but who qualified for the tournament through finishing in the top five of the South African Airways Open in December, made the most of his opportunity with a flawless six under par 66 to post a new course record and open up a two shot lead over his nearest challengers.
Heading the chasing pack was the likes of World Number Two and tournament favourite Vijay Singh alongside Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee and Ricardo Gonzalez of Argentina, who all posted 68s. But the day belonged to Horne.
“It was very good out there today,” he said. “I hit the ball nicely and I just tried to concentrate on hitting the ball well today and not getting ahead of myself which I tend to do so I was very happy with my round.
“I am used to the wind having grown up on the coast so I am quite happy to see it blowing and I hope it keeps blowing for the next three days. I think the harder the golf course plays the better for me. I have to concentrate more then and generally the better I do so I hope it continues to play tough through the week.
“But it is great to be here and I am just trying to enjoy myself. It is the first time I have played a European Tour event which is not co-sanctioned with another Tour so I am enjoying it very much. It is a big event with a lot of good players so I am just trying to absorb it all.”
Certainly the South African did more than absorb the desert surroundings, he revelled in them, notching three birdies in four holes on the outward half before turning for home and carding another three in the first five holes of the back nine to upstage the many big names assembled for the first European Tour Order of Merit event in the calendar year of 2006.
However, one player ominously on his shoulder was Singh who was also flawless in his opening effort, although the 42 year old Fijian posted two birdies fewer than the leader.
“It was pretty tough out there with the windy conditions,” he said. “When we started off it wasn't as windy, but as we got along, it got really windy and dry. It was tough. I was really pleased with the score I had, and I had a lot of opportunities out there to even better it, but, you know, I'll take a 68 today.
“I also never got into any real trouble, and when I did, I got out of it quite well. I think the early part of my round on the back nine, I missed two greens. But I got up and down pretty well, the fact that I draw the ball well, hit a lot of good iron shots, played okay.”
Singh, looking for his first European Tour International Schedule victory since the 2004 US PGA Championship, began with a bang at the tenth hole with a birdie four and ended his first nine holes in similar style with a birdie four at the 559 yard 18th.
Turning for home, the Honorary Member of The European Tour turned his attention to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s short holes and returned birdies at both the ones on the front nine, holing from eight feet at the fourth and six feet at the seventh.
Sitting alongside Singh was two time winner on The European Tour, Thongchai Jaidee, although the Thai golfer had to thank an amazing stroke of good fortune for his lofty position.
On the 196 yard seventh hole, his 16th of the day having started at the tenth, his tee shot was heading straight into one of the many water hazards around the course only for it to hit a rock in the water and bounce back to safety from where he made par three.
The 36 year old did drop a shot at the ninth after three putting, but it could not put a damper on his day. “Obviously I was not happy to three putt the final green but I only had one bogey in total so overall I am pretty happy with that,” he said. “We have three more rounds to go so I will see how we go with those, but I will be trying my best.”
Completing the trio on four under par was Gonzalez who admitted he felt suitably refreshed for the 2006 season after a long winter break spent at home with friends and family.
“It helped my recharge my batteries and I can hopefully use that this week,” said the Argentine, who carded six birdies in total to combat his two dropped shots which came at two of the course’s short holes, the seventh and the 15th, where he missed the green with his respective tee shots.
While Singh led the charge of the top players from the Official World Golf Ranking in action, he was followed sequentially by Sergio Garcia (70), Chris DiMarco (71), Colin Montgomerie (72) and David Howell (73).
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