(Reuters) - Ernie Els made a flying start in his bid to claim an unprecedented fourth Dubai Desert Classic trophy, firing a six under par 66 in the first round on Thursday.
The 37 year old South African, starting at the tenth hole on a calm, sunny day at the Emirates Golf Club, set the early pace alongside Spain's Jose Manuel Lara and Jyoti Randhawa of India.
"I feel comfortable on this course," said Els. "I love the way they set it up and it is always in perfect shape."I feel excited playing here because I enjoy the golf course and feel I can make some birdies. Conditions were perfect this morning."
At the end of last year, Els said he had formulated a three year plan to challenge Tiger Woods at the top of the world rankings. On the evidence of Thursday's showing, he may get there quicker than he predicted.
The World Number Four suffered a shaky start, almost driving out of bounds at the long tenth and dropping a stroke by three-putting the short 11th. But Els, champion in Dubai in 2005, 2002 and 1994, hit back with an eagle two at the par four 12th when his seven iron from 167 yards rolled straight into the cup. He followed up with four birdies in a five hole burst to reach the turn in five under par 32.
The three-times Major Champion appeared to be targeting his own course record of 61 achieved in 1994 when he added further birdies at the first and third. But he lost momentum by three-putting the short fourth for another bogey.
Lara, playing in the group directly in front of Els, produced immaculate golf. The 29 year old from Valencia, who recorded his second European Tour victory when he won the UBS Hong Kong Open in November, matched Els's first nine of 32 before notching his sixth birdie of the day at the third.
Randhawa, 34, who already has two top ten finishes on The European Tour this season, sprinkled his round with eight birdies and two bogeys.
Sharing fourth place on 67 were Welshman Phillip Price, England's Simon Dyson and Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand.