A POSSE of Scots are lining up to challenge South African pacesetter Richard Sterne after a low-scoring opening round in the Dubai Desert Classic, the final event on the European Tour’s early-season Gulf Swing.
On another encouraging day for golf’s “Tartan Army”, Stephen Gallacher equalled his lowest score to sit a shot off the lead, with Scott Jamieson and Chris Doak just behind.
Sterne, a 31-year-old from Pretoria, carded a ten-under-par 62 that was only a single stroke outside the Emirates course record set by his fellow countryman, Ernie Els, 19 years ago.
But he ended the day with Gallacher breathing down his neck after the Bathgate man’s 63, which contained two eagles. That matched his best effort in close to 400 events on the Tour.
“It’s a good way to start, especially as I had a new driver in the bag after my old one broke in Qatar last week,” said the former Dunhill Links champion.
In a round he described as “bizzare”, Gallacher stormed to the turn in 30 then dropped shots back-to-back at the tenth and 11th before covering his last seven holes in six-under.
Joint second in the same event last year, having also finished in the top ten in 2011, it is a course that clearly suits the Scot’s eye. “I’ve played here when I’ve been out on holiday in the past, so I know where to hit it and also where to miss,” he added, saying that the “rust” which had been responsible for a wayward driving display in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago had been shaken off.
Jamieson, the Race to Dubai leader after finishing first, third and second in his first three events of the 2013 campaign, returned to form after back-to-back missed cuts in Abu Dhabi and Qatar. His 65 also included an eagle – at the tenth – and left the Glaswegian sharing third alongside Doak, a Challenge Tour graduate, and young Englishman Tommy Fleetwood.
“Seven-under on any course is good, although conditions were perfect today and the greens were rolling great,” said Jamieson, echoing a widely held view that the surfaces are much better than had been feared this week.
Like Gallacher, Jamieson feels at home at this venue, having finished tied for fifth 12 months ago after opening with the same score. “After making a fast start to the season, the last couple of weeks have not been as good as I’d have liked, but it’s nice to come back here after doing well last year,” he said.
Tantalisingly close to earning a spot in next month’s WGC Match Play in Arizona, the world No 69 is determined to let things take a natural course over the next three days. “The secret is to let it happen,” he insisted. “When you start thinking about things, they don’t go as well as they could do.”
Doak, playing in just his third event since regaining a place at the top table for the first time in four seasons, attributed his flawless seven-birdie effort to the work he’s been putting in with coach Bob Torrance.
“I’ve worked with Bob for the last four or five years and my ball-striking is definitely better,” said the former Tartan Tour No 1. “My mental attitude is also better so it’s all clicking into place.”
One-under after five holes, Doak found his touch on the greens thereafter and hardly missed a thing. “I would have taken half as good as that at the start, although it could also have been one or two better,” he added. “I’d been using different putters with different faces but I’ve gone back to basics with a Scotty Cameron one and the putts started to drop today.”
Marc Warren is also on five-under, two fewer than former winner Colin Montgomerie, David Drysdale and Craig Lee, while Richie Ramsay (70) and Scott Henry (71) also broke par.
Sterne bagged ten birdies but the five-times Tour winner could not manage the one extra birdie he needed in the last two holes to match Els’ record.
“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,” said the leader.
Sergio Garcias hot 68 but was troubled by his left shoulder. “If it does not get better, I don’t know whether I will play tomorrow,” he said.