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Thursday, 26 January 2012
Robert Karlsson  (Getty Images)
Robert Karlsson (Getty Images)
Robert Karlsson and Rory McIlroy started their European Tour campaigns with five under par 67s to share the lead at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

McIlroy drew first blood as he, Tiger Woods and Luke Donald took their opening steps in a season which promises so much.

But while McIlroy's round gave him a share of the lead with Swede Karlsson at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, the 22 year old also saw for himself just how much Woods has improved since they were last at a tournament together.

That was the US PGA Championship in August, when the former World Number One gave his worst-ever performance at a Major in missing the cut by six shots.

Now, with his first win for over two years under his belt, Woods has hopes of making it two in a row after a bogey-free 70 for joint ninth place on his debut in the event.

That was one stroke better than current Number One Donald, the third member of the star group, and McIlroy said afterwards: "Tiger definitely looked very good to me - he's got the ball under control."

Northern Ireland's US Open champion could not say the same about himself, but a superb short game enabled him to shine on a day that also witnessed Sergio Garcia's first-ever hole-in-one on The European Tour.

Garcia, who like fellow Spaniard Jose Manuel Lara an hour later aced the 186-yard 12th, matched Donald's 71, while Lee Westwood shot 72 and Martin Kaymer - winner three of the last four years - a shocking 77 on a course where 15 of his previous 16 rounds were 68 or lower.

Former European Number One Karlsson mixed two bogeys with two birdies in his first four holes, but settled down to record five further gains despite never quite being on top of his game.

“I'm very proud of myself, I managed to turn something that wasn't very good into something very good on the scorecard and I’m very happy with that,” he said.

“I think I have a little bit of work to do on the range this afternoon.

“It wasn't particularly good off the tee, but I managed to keep it together. I holed a lot of good par putts and when I got the chance, I knocked them in. I'm very, very proud of myself to turn something that wasn't particularly good into a good scorecard, so it was a good round.

“I don't think we are going to play many tournaments this year that's going to be a stronger field than this. I think we have the one, two, three, four in the world here, so it's a pleasure to play here, and the golf course is set up fantastic. It's a difficult test - the rough is very thick but the fairways and greens are fantastic.”

McIlroy has finished fifth, third and second on his last three visits, but despite his six birdies it was off to the range afterwards to work on his game."I don't feel I drove the ball particularly well," he said after catching Karlsson by chipping in at his penultimate hole.

"I think it's just because your first competitive round of the season, card in your hand, you can get a little bit tentative or a little apprehensive."

On finding himself up against Woods and Donald so soon in the year he added: "It makes you focus - 7.40 tee times on Thursday mornings don't usually get me that excited, but this morning it did."

Out-scoring his boyhood hero was a feather in his cap, but he added: "It's only the first round of a tournament. If it was the last day and you both have a chance to win I would take a lot of pride from that obviously."

If it comes down to the par five last hole McIlroy will have to try to avoid a repeat of a three wood second that flew wildly into a hospitality tent.

"It's probably in someone's lunch," he said.

He and Karlsson finished the day one ahead of McIlroy's compatriot Gareth Maybin, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Gonnet and England's Richard Finch, who in a spectacular finish sank a seven iron for an eagle two on the sixth, pitched in from 67 yards for birdie at the eighth and then birdied the ninth as well.

Garcia's ace also came with a seven iron and it won him a three-night stay at the five-star Emirates Palace Hotel - every year for life. Suites there can cost over €1,500 a night, but with only one prize on offer his compatriot Lara was not so fortunate.

Graeme McDowell was going well when he reached three under, but right from the start he thought there could be something wrong with his driver and when it gave out on the 17th it cost him a double bogey.

"On my first swing it felt like a piece of glue came loose in the head," he said after his 72.

"It's broken basically. I've been testing a new one, so this will force me to put it into play."

South African Branden Grace, trying to become the first player to win three consecutive events on The European Tour since Seve Ballesteros in 1986, managed only a 75.

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Tournament Leaderboard

Pos Player nameNatHolePar
1ROCK, RobertENG18-13
2MCILROY, RoryNIR18-12
T3MCDOWELL, GraemeNIR18-11
T3BJÖRN, ThomasDEN18-11
T3WOODS, TigerUSA18-11
T6MANASSERO, MatteoITA18-10
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