Richard Sterne (Getty Images)
South African Richard Sterne shot the lowest round of his European Tour career to lead the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
The 31 year old from Pretoria, back playing a full schedule after a back problem limited him to only four events in 2010 and six the following season, fired a ten under par 62 that was only a single stroke outside the Emirates course record set by compatriot Ernie Els 19 years ago.
Els was five better than anybody else that day and went on to win by six, but Sterne goes into the second round just one ahead of Scot Stephen Gallacher.
Sterne had ten birdies, but the five-time European Tour winner, who could not manage the one extra gain he needed in the last two holes to match the Els record.
He said: "I knew Ernie had shot 61 quite a while ago and always thought it would be impossible to get close, but I got as close as you could.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better start really. I enjoy this golf course and it shows with the good score today.
“Hopefully I can just keep going and give myself a chance on Sunday when it counts. I do want to win again and that’s one of the goals for the year.
“It’s been a while since I’ve won – it’s just not that easy to do anymore!”
Gallacher's 63 equalled his lowest Tour round in 398 events, only one of which - the 2004 Dunhill Links at St Andrews - has ended in victory.
The 38 year old, joint runner-up with Westwood last year and armed with a new driver after breaking his regular one last week, sank a 175 yard seven iron for a two on the 485 yard sixth, added another eagle on the 13th and then had a hat-trick of birdies from the 15th.
“It was a bizarre round,” he said “I chipped in and three-putted from six feet – everything was happening. I drove it great and hit a lot of shots close.”
Gallacher’s compatriots Scott Jamieson – the early Race to Dubai leader – and Chris Doak, as well as England’s Tommy Fleetwood, were tied for third on seven under par.
The scoring was such that Lee Westwood's 67 - the same as 56 year old Mark O'Meara, winner in 2004 - in his first competitive outing of the season was not even good enough to put him in the top ten.
Tournament director Mike Stewart had sent a letter to players in advance of the event warning them about the condition of the greens, but Paul Casey said after his 66: "They are absolutely pure. It's the best-conditioned golf course I've played this year by far.
"The guys are going to go bananas when you have a course as good as this."
Chris Wood and Sergio Garcia, first and second in Qatar last weekend, both shot 68, but the Spanish star was troubled by his left shoulder.
Westwood, who eagled the 564 yard 18th, is looking forward to resuming after a bogey-free start to his season confirmed that his move to Florida has enabled him to stay sharp over the winter.
"I have a few new clubs in the bag, woods and putter, and they all behaved," he said.