THE quips were flying around everywhere. “Can we play here all the time?” asked his manager, Iain Stoddart, before caddie Damian Moore jokingly added: “We’ll crack this course eventually.”
They’d just watched Stephen Gallacher go low yet again on the Majlis Course at the Emirates Golf Club, this time signing for a six-under-par 66 as the 40-year-old made an excellent start in his bid to win the Omega Dubai Desert Classic for the third year running.
On a day when the scoring was as spectacular as the nearby skyscrapers, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger set the pace with a 64, one fewer than English duo Lee Westwood and Andy Sullivan, as well as Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts and American Peter Uihlein.
Gallacher is lurking ominously, though, and so, too, are world No 1 Rory McIlroy and Masters-chasing Marc Warren as they matched the defending champion’s latest eye-catching effort on this course. Gallacher is now an accumulative 61-under-par in his last 13 rounds here, an incredible scoring spree that includes no fewer than five eagles at the par-5 13th, where he holed a bunker shot from 20 feet on this occasion.
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“I always seem to hole a shot here – I almost come to expect it now,” said Gallacher, smiling, having sparked that trend when he knocked in a 40-yard bunker shot at the 18th in the third round in 2013, the same year he also holed out from the fairway for an eagle-2 at the 16th on the last day.
In both his wins here so far, Gallacher had done most of the damage on the back nine. It was pleasing for him, therefore, that his best work – the eagle apart, of course – yesterday came on the tougher front nine. It was covered in just 31 blows, containing four birdies and five 3s in the last six holes.
“A nice way to start,” admitted the Ryder Cup player. “I was a bit ropey in practice, having kind of gone back into my old habits. But I worked hard today. I had to think a bit more consciously about the swing and whatnot, which I don’t like doing, but it was good in the end.”
The fifth, a 451-yard par-4, was tamed with a drive of more than 320 yards and a “small wedge”. The eighth, which is marginally longer and one of the toughest holes on the course, also just needed a wedge for the approach. A birdie-birdie finish was very nice indeed. “He just bullied the holes over that closing stretch today,” declared the aforementioned Moore.
Warren also eagled the 13th in his flawless opening effort, which saw the 33-year-old take up where he’d left off with a closing 67 to finish second to Branden Grace in the Qatar Masters last weekend. That lifted Warren to 56th in the world rankings, meaning he just needs to climb six more spots between now and the end of March to earn his first Masters invitation.
“Augusta in April is definitely where I want to be,” admitted the three-times European Tour winner. “It’s the toughest event to qualify for, but I’m up to my highest-ever position in the rankings so I’m going the right way.”
He is already on course to earn a spot in the season’s opening WGC – the Cadillac Championship in Florida in early March. Top 60 in the world or top ten in the Race to Dubai will seal that deal and he ticks both those boxes at present.
“I’m driving the ball really well,” replied Warren when asked what was his main strength right now. “Because of that I’m hitting a lot of greens and with putting the strong part of my game, I’ve been able to take a fair share of chances.”
As far as this event goes, the former World Cup winner is happy for starters to be sitting alongside its specialist. “I’m trying to keep up with Stevie and managed it today,” he said of Gallacher.
“But six-under for me probably feels like level-par for him,” he added with a chuckle.
Wiesberger, who finished third in Qatar, grabbed the lead by making five birdies in a row from the 13th, though that burst was upstaged by Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo, last year’s runner-up, as he came up just one short of the European Tour record with seven straight birdies to finish in his 67.
Despite closing with his only dropped shot of the day at the ninth, McIlroy was pleased with an opening salvo that contained seven birdies. “It’s another good start here,” said the 2009 winner, who gave an indication of how his bar has been raised since then. “Six years ago a 66 would have been really good for me, but today it’s what I expect,” added the Open and US PGA champion.
Sullivan, a Nuneaton man who won the Scottish Open Stroke-Play Championship at Blairgowrie in 2011 and also played in a winning Walker Cup side at Royal Aberdeen that year, didn’t expect to be playing with both McIlroy and US Open champion Martin Kaymer in the opening two rounds here. “I thought they’d messed up the draw when I saw it,” he admitted.
Helped by the friendliness of his two playing partners, the recent winner of the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa took that in his stride, though, to beat McIlroy by one shot and Kaymer by two. “It was the best day of my life out there,” confessed Sullivan afterwards.