Lee Westwood, the new leader of the Order of Merit, and Anton Haig share the first round lead in the Commercialbank Qatar Masters presented by Dolphin Energy after defying a strong wind with opening rounds of five under par 67.
Englishman Westwood is enjoying a hot streak having finished joint runner-up in his first two events of the 2008 season and that showed no signs of fading with a flawless display at Doha Golf Club.
Haig, who burst onto the scene with his victory in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand last year as an Affiliate Member, set the early pace and reached six under par before three putting the ninth, his final hole, from 70 feet.
But the young South African was quickly chased down by Westwood, who won twice last year and finished shared second place last week in Abu Dhabi to move to the top of The European Tour Order of Merit.
The target was set on a blustery opening morning in Qatar and the afternoon starters were unable to catch them in the testing conditions. Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, the two highest ranked players in the field at eighth and 12th in the world respectively, had chances on the last to move within a stroke of the lead but both missed putts from within eight feet to lie in a seven-way tie for third place two shots back.
“My confidence is good, obviously,” said Westwood. “I think I have had ten top tens in the last 11 events, so I can't help but be confident. You're always a bit mindful when you have a long break, but in the middle of that long break, I finished fourth in Tiger's event and last week came out and started slowly, felt a little rusty especially on the greens but got it going on Saturday and got into the tournament and had a chance on Sunday.”
Joint second in the HSBC Champions in the opening event of the season, where he lost out in a play-off to Phil Mickelson, and the same finishing position last week behind Martin Kaymer have given him a flying start to his 2008 campaign.
“I'm usually a slow starter,” admitted Westwood. “It's all to do with my fitness. I usually come out a bit lethargic and the muscles not really working, but I do a lot in the gym with the muscles on the golf swing and feel very strong and everything feels all right.”
Haig has struggled to find the form which brought him his maiden victory last season but has come out this year with a fresh approach and with his coach, Jamie Gough, accompanying him.
“I started working with Jamie during the South African Airways Open and he’s just trying to get me back to where I was. I tend to cause quite a few faults in my swing without being watched, so I need full-time surveillance.”
Scott was back In Qatar for the first time since he won six years ago and once again showed his liking for the course with four birdies and just the one dropped shot.
“It was pretty good considering it was tricky out there,” said the Australian. “It was a tough breeze and hard to hit it close. There were some tough pins and in awkward positions and the wind was blowing.
“Hopefully I can catch a break and it is a little calmer in the morning and I can make a load of birdies and set myself up for the weekend.”
Playing partner Garcia also played well for his first competitive round of the year but felt he left a couple of shots on the course.
“I missed a couple of short ones coming in but it was good overall,” he said. “I guess being the first round of the year it is not too bad. I am not that happy though as I could easily have been around the lead or one back but it is still a decent round.”
Swede Henrik Stenson, the 2006 champion at Doha GC, compatriots Johan Edfors and Alex Noren, England’s Paul Broadhurst and Germany’s Marcel Siem also shot opening 69s to lie two shots off the first round lead.
Dubai-based Stenson has enjoyed plenty of success in the region having won the Commercialbank Qatar Masters two years ago and last year’s Dubai Desert Classic.
“Just playing these tournaments for the number of years I have gives you an idea of how to play the courses and I have played well here,” he said. “It gives you confidence and it is always nice to come back.”
Siem might have missed the cut last week in Abu Dhabi but still walked the last nine holes supporting his countryman Martin Kaymer as he marched to his maiden success, and gave him a good dousing of champagne at the end.
That experience has clearly inspired him to try and make it a German double in the Gulf.
“It was just so nice to watch him playing and how easy he’s doing it,” said Siem. “I remembered how easy going I took it when I came on Tour and the last two years I got a bit tight. I went out today and tried to have some fun like I did the years before.”
Broadhurst was far from happy with his day’s work after starting and finishing his opening round with a six but five birdies between those dropped shots left him well placed after the opening round.