Desert fox Stephen Gallacher makes early raid in Abu Dhabi

Stephen Gallacher during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Picture: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen Gallacher during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Picture: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
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Desert specialist Stephen Gallacher was joined by Richie Ramsay in bursting out of the blocks as the pair started their 2018 campaigns by outscoring world No 1 Dustin Johnson in the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Only seven players, one of them being defending champion Tommy Fleetwood, fared better on the opening day of the $3 million event than the Scottish pair as they carded matching four-under-par 68s at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Fleetwood, last year’s Race to Dubai winner, took up where he’d left off 12 months ago by hitting 18 greens in regulation in firing a six-under-par 66. That effort was matched late in the day by Japan’s Hideto Tanihara as the pair took a one-shot lead over a group that included Ryder Cup hopefuls Thomas Pieters, Ross Fisher and Bernd Wiesberger.

After picking up three birdies on the trot following his start from the 10th, two-time Omega Dubai Desert Classic champion Gallacher was the early leader before twice sharing top spot with Fleetwood after getting to four-under at the turn then five-under with four holes to play.

Around the time Fleetwood was moving to six-under, the Scot dropped his only shot of the round at the par-3 seventh, but, that blip apart, it was a good day’s for Gallacher in his first competitive round since the Nedbank Challenge towards the end of last season.

“It was great,” he said afterwards. “I played lovely the front nine, giving myself a lot of chances. I only missed one green and was never really outside 15-20 feet. I didn’t play great on the back nine, missing some fairways and getting myself out of position, but four-under is pretty good for my first round since November.” It beat his best opening effort in this event by two shots and was a 13-shot improvement on his first-day score on this course two years ago. After this start, Gallacher can feel quietly confident about repeating his top-10 finish here in 2014, though he reckons this week’s test is a lot different to the Majlis Course in Dubai.

“This is nothing like the Emirates Golf Club,” he insisted of the venue for two of his three European Tour triumphs – he won the Desert Classic back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. “It has more options. This one is longer and a bit tougher.”

Ramsay freely admits he found it too tough at first, missing the cut in his first three visits here, but, helped by gaining a bit more distance off the tee over the years, the Aberdonian has slowly but surely started to conquer this course.

Playing it the other way round to Gallacher, Ramsay bagged five birdies, including a 4 to finish, and was delighted with his start to the campaign as he bids to improve on finishing 31st in last year’s Race to Dubai.

“I’m very happy as that’s probably the best opening round of the season I’ve ever had,” declared the 34-year-old. “My ball-striking was really good and I drove it well, which is key around here. A driver is one of four new clubs in the bag and I love the added distance I got off the tee with that.”

Fleetwood’s start to his title defence was all the more impressive given that he had Johnson and the returning Rory McIlroy for company. “It was very good, very-stress free,” said the Englishman of his feat of hitting all 18 greens in regulation.

“I think during my career I’m going to struggle to find a better three-ball, really. I don’t know what I’ll do in my career and nobody knows what the future holds, but I think these two might be going down in the history books, so it will be nice to say that I played with these two in a three-ball.”

Despite being two-under early on, Johnson had to settle for a one-over 72 – the same score he opened with last year when finishing just a shot behind Fleetwood.

David Drysdale (72) fared best among the other Scots, with Marc Warren and Paul Lawrie having to settle for 73 and 74 respectively. Former Duddingston assistant professional Tom Buchanan, who is now based in the UAE, matched Lawrie’s two-over effort while Scott Jamieson had a 75.