Francesco Molinari bids to hold off Tommy Fleetwood in Dubai

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Francesco Molinari strengthened his grip on the Race to Dubai title despite a late stumble on the opening day of the DP World Tour Championship.

Molinari enjoyed a share of the lead after 14 holes of the first round at Jumeirah Golf Estates, only to three-putt both the 15th and 18th to card a four-under-par 68 and finish two shots behind joint leaders Jordan Smith and Adrian Otaegui.

And with playing partner, Ryder Cup team-mate and Race to Dubai rival Tommy Fleetwood making an unlikely birdie on the last from off the green, the reigning European number one was just a shot behind following a battling 69.

“It’s a shame because I putted really well up until the 14th and then I just misjudged the pace on a couple of those putts and left myself more work to do than I needed to,” said Open champion Molinari, who would be the first Italian to finish top of the money list.

“My game was OK, probably not my best, but putting and short game was very good up until the 14th, and that’s how I built the six-under score to that point.

“It’s only Thursday so there are so many things that can happen. Both of us did not hit the ball our best but we managed to scramble well and close out two decent rounds.

“I did a good job of thinking shot by shot and that’s what I need to do. I don’t think there is any benefit to thinking about what-ifs. It’s too early.”

Fleetwood, who has to win and hope Molinari finishes outside the top five to retain his title, admitted he had to work hard to keep his round together on the back nine, but added: “Sometimes those are the rounds that maybe win you golf tournaments at the end of the week.

“You come into this week still with a chance of the Race to Dubai, one round down and we still have a chance. As long as our head’s above water for that, we’ll be happy and keep going.”

Scotland’s Russell Knox is seven shots off the lead after an opening round of 73, one over par, which included birdies at the third and 17th holes.