Ian Poulter holed a mammoth 70 foot putt on the final green to earn a share of a one stroke first round lead with Richard Bland and Keith Horne at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship after carding a bogey free seven under par 65.
South African Horne, who finished second last week in Johannesburg, and Southampton resident Bland matched Poulter’s effort to top the leaderboard ahead of a group of nine at six under par, including Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy.
Garcia recovered from back-to-back early bogeys, while McIlroy blamed a “mental error” for a double bogey, although he did respond in style with two consecutive birdies.
Former champion and last year’s runner-up Martin Kaymer dropped just one shot in a five under 67 to share 13th with a bogey free Louis Oosthuizen, who also claimed a runner-up finish at Abu Dhabi Golf Club 12 months ago, Thomas Aiken and Rafa Echenique.
Poulter admits he is hungry to compete after a six week Christmas break and all signs point to a positive result this week after he returned from a similar break to end a two year winless streak in Singapore at the end of last year.
“I wasn’t expecting to come out quite as fast, but I’ll take it - I hit it lovely. I started practising on Tuesday and I didn’t feel 70 per cent let alone the way it was today,” said the World Number 12.
“I put an extra session in on Tuesday and Wednesday, my hands were raw and sore. I’ve done an awful lot of hard work and it definitely paid off. I hit my irons very solid and I holed some nice putts.
“One of my goals at the start of the year was to hole more 20 foot putts which I haven’t done a lot of. And I said to my caddie ‘I hope you’re keeping count, a few of those are going in’ and they kept going in. They dried up on the back nine a little, but there was a little bonus on the last.”
None of the leading trio dropped a shot, Bland - seeking his first title in his eighth full season on The European Tour - starting with a hattrick of birdies from the tenth.
Horne eagle the par five second and added five further birdies as he also managed not to drop a stroke.
Despite the 2010 season being only four events old, Horne has already secured his highest European Tour earnings, thanks largely to his second place finish at last week’s Joburg Open which propelled him to fourth on The Race to Dubai.
World Number 13 Garcia is still struggling with the hand injury he picked up at the end of last year, but bounced back from his early setbacks by picking up seven shots in ten holes around the turn.
“It didn’t look great for the first four holes, but I played fairly well and it is definitely a good comeback,” said the Spaniard, who finished eighth last year.
“There is still a couple of shots I need to fix, there’s obviously a little bit of rust still in my body, but overall, I think it was a good comeback and a good solid round to start the week with.”
World Number Ten McIlroy has targeting breaking into the world’s top five this year and picked up where he left off last year by signalling his intentions, despite opting for the wrong club off the tee at the 11th which resulted in the only blot on his scorecard.
“I’m very happy. Apart from that one loose tee shot it was really good,” said McIlroy, who finished fifth 12 months ago.
“I made a lot of birdies and converted a lot of my chances. So anytime you open up a tournament with a 66 you’ve got to be happy.”
The nine players on six under have more than 20 European Tour titles between them, with Rhys Davies, Stephen Dodd, Peter Hanson, Paul Lawrie, Alvaro Quiros, Alexander Noren and Daniel Vancsik also on the mark.
Quiros and McIlroy both won during last year’s Gulf Swing, while Lee Westwood kicked off his Race to Dubai defence with a three under par 69, three better than defending champion Paul Casey.