Helped by a late thrust that produced five birdies in the last six holes, the 24-year-old from Sheffield carded a seven-under-par 65 to break a logjam at the top of the leaderboard on a day when 2017 winner Sergio Garcia and world No 5 Bryson DeChambeau were among eight players to take route 66 at Emirates Golf Club.
“He was exaggerating,” said Fitzpatrick, laughing off Montgomerie’s claim that he had failed miserably as a group of players tried to recreate the shot from 23 years ago that is marked by a plaque on the fairway. “I think I just played the wrong shot. I was trying to hit it a bit low when I needed to get it up in the air a bit more. But that was good fun.”
Fitzpatrick has five European Tour titles to his name, having won at least once for the last four seasons. He successfully defended the Omega European Masters last year. However, slipping to 24th in Race to Dubai after being in the top 15 the previous three years wasn’t what he was looking for.
“I’m not going to lie, I was really disappointed with my season last year,” admitted the 2013 US Amateur champion. “I knew a lot of things had to change.”
He added Steve Robinson, a performance coach from his native Yorkshire, to his team. While doing a slightly different job, Fitzpatrick is hoping he can help him in the same way that Dave Aldred helped Francesco Molinari become a major winner. “Steve is a golf coach I came across when I was with Yorkshire when I was a youngster,” he said. “It’s just someone to manage my practice and organise it.”
His new caddie, the vastly-experienced Billy Foster, has also helped Fitzpatrick get his 2019 campaign off to a promising start, having teed up here fresh from finishing fourth in the Singapore Open last weekend. “I had Billy on the bag for the DP World Tour Championship (in November) and he gave me his opinion on my game. He wrote me a good email about everything. It was quite a good week for him to see as I didn’t play my best. What had been common for the season showed up and that helped a lot,” he said.
“My whole team had an end-of-year meeting and, while pull the finger out isn’t the right phrase, I think we were all on the same page that I can do better than I did last year.The big thing for me is that my wedge play has been very poor over the last five hyears on tour. That was probably the main thing I worked on over the Christmas break and I’ve come out so far and I think I’ve had five to six shots from 60 to 120 yards and I don’t think I’ve hit it outside three feet. That’s a good start.”
Among those with Fitzpatrick in their sights is Dubai specialist Stephen Gallacher after he underlined why he describes the Majlis Course as his “home from home” by opening with a four-under-par 68 to sit handily-placed.
It was the 23rd time that Gallacher had shot in the 60s on this course and the 46th occasion that he’d broken par. He’s now a combined 118-under-par for 63 rounds, having chalked up seven top-10 finishes in 18 appearances.
“I wish I knew,” replied the 44-year-old to being asked what his secret to success is at this particular venue. “I think every time I come back here I’ve got great memories. I play the course when I’m out here on holiday and it’s a home from home, really. “I know the course really well. I’ve played it in every wind. I’ve played it in every scenario. When you have a catalogue of good shots, I think you have a wee spring in your step.”
Richie Ramsay was next best among six Scots with a 69, which was sparked by birdies at his opening three holes. “The fast start was nice,” he admitted afterwards. Maintaining the level of golf that saw him finish just outside the top 10 in that Rolex Series event, Scott Jamieson made four birdies as he signed for a 70, matched by Marc Warren.
Montgomerie shot a 71, two better than David Drysdale, who was happy to get round unscathed after his preparation was hit by back trouble.
“I wouldn’t be playing if it wasn’t for (physio) Stuart Barton flying out here and sorting my back. He’s a miracle worker!” said Drysdale.