TWO Scots plus a man who’ll probably feel adopted by the home of golf this year nestled themselves in behind three joint leaders after the opening round of the £1.6 million HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.
Marc Warren, Craig Lee and Paul McGinley all signed for four-under-par 68s, praiseworthy efforts on the demanding Abu Dhabi Golf Club, to sit just a shot behind Frenchman Romain Wattel, Englishman Matthew Baldwin and Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello.
Despite heading into the 2014 campaign as the leading Scottish contender in the Ryder Cup qualifying race, Lee reckons he has little or no chance of forcing his way into McGinley’s team at Gleneagles.
“I’d probably have to win three events,” predicted the 36-year-old Stirling man, who, nonetheless, has noticably grown in stature since being pipped by Thomas Bjorn in a play-off for the European Masters last September.
His face may not be known in these parts, as he discovered when he was stopped by a security guard en route to the scorers’ hut and asked to show his official players’ badge. But, if Lee can continue to roll in putts the way he did on his back nine on lightning-fast greens to come home in four-under 32, he could well be challenging for that breakthrough European Tour triumph again this weekend.
Out in 36 after starting with a bogey-6 at the tenth, he was still level-par with five holes to play but then reeled off four birdies on the trot. Three of them were from 20 feet or more and he holed another lengthy one to salvage a par at the last after finding water from the tee.
“I’m starting to believe in myself a bit more now,” he said afterwards. “Before, I was in the position where you think you maybe had a game but, until you prove it, you never really know and then that gives you a little bit more of an edge.”
Helping give Warren an edge in the opening leg of the Middle East swing is a tip he received from Jose Maria Olazabal, the European captain for last month’s Royal Trophy in China.
“I’ve changed the sole of my lob wedge and that was after speaking with Jose, who said he thought it had a lot of bounce on it after he played about six or eight shots with it,” reported the two-times Tour winner after a flawless four-birdie effort. “So I was straight on the phone to Ian Dryden at Callaway to get one made up for me and he’s done a great job.”
Delighted to hear before teeing off that Scott Jamieson had now joined him in becoming a first-time dad, Warren was also using a new Callaway ball as he made a promising start to the 2014 campaign in the company of Cabrera-Bello.
“The Royal Trophy is the only tournament I’ve played since the end of the Race to Dubai, so it’s just been a matter of getting back into playing mode,” he added. “And, while I missed a few greens today, I got up and down really well.”
McGinley’s main priority this year may be trying to lead Europe to victory at Gleneagles in September but, between now and then, he has no intention of being a “ceremonial golfer”.
Here 12 months ago, having just become the first Irishman to land the Ryder Cup post, his head was scrambled and remained so for around five months. But, having been encouraged by the way he played in the second half of last season, he was half expecting to give a decent account of himself this time around.
“I’m treating my golf seriously as it’s an important part of my job and I want to be out here being competitive,” he said.
In the company of two young Ryder Cup hopefuls in Tommy Fleetwood and Thorbjorn Olesen, McGinley was unlucky when his approach to the 16th kicked into the water. He chipped in for a bogey.
“It’s just one round so let’s keep things in perspective, but I felt I deserved my score today,” he added before reiterating that he has no desire to make his own team in Perthshire. In fact, he’s asked that his name isn’t even on the qualifying points list.
Wattel, winner of the 2010 Scottish Stroke-Play Championship at Glasgow Gailes, secured his share of the lead with a bogey-free effort, a rare achievement on a tough track.
Paul Lawrie, for instance, didn’t make the flying start he’d been hoping for in his first round of the year, the Aberdonian limping home in 43 for an 80 to sit 123rd among 126 starters in the UAE. “Hit it good, putted great, attitude fantastic, what a start to the season,” he wrote in a sarcastic tweet afterwards.
Along with Lee and Warren, Stephen Gallacher was satisfied with his opening 70, admitting he’d felt more comfortable on a sunny day in the emirate than in the heat and humidity in Durban last week.
“I’ll take that to start with, as this is a tricky course,” said the Dubai Desert Classic champion. “I played well on my front nine, then hit only one fairway on the back but managed to shoot one under on it.”