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 two players, one of them being defending champion Tommy Fleetwood, fared better on the opening morning 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, set the clubhouse target as the Englishman took up where he’d left off 12 months ago by hitting 18 greens in regulation in firing a six-under-par 66 in the same group as Johnson and the returning Rory McIlroy.
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 - but, in his first outing since the Dunhill Links last October, McIlroy finished strongly to sign for an encouraging 69.
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.”
Gallacher, who has a new caddie - fellow Scot John Dempster - on his big this week, has been out in the United Arab Emirates since December 30 and was delighted to see an instant reward for putting in a lot of hard work in preparation for his 21st season on the European Tour.
“I’ve grafted very hard for two weeks and this is the place to do it for me as I can’t hit balls off mats any more,” added the 43-year-old. “My surgeon, Doug Campbell, told me that after the problems I had with my hand a couple of years ago. I’d only be able to hit 100 balls otherwise it would be to the detriment of my hand.
“Helped by the fact I have been able to get in some really good work over here on the grass, I hit my irons good today and rolled the ball well on the greens, too. I didn’t really hit as many fairways as I wanted, so there’s still some rust in there, but I’ve given myself something to build on.”
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, having 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.
“I had one on the 14th down breeze that was just short of the bunker, which was comfortably over 300. And at the 16, coming back into the breeze, I hit one 290 and I don’t hit it that far. I normally hit it straight and if I can be average in terms of distance, I am going to be way up there in accuracy.”
After that struggling start, this was the eighth time he’s managed to break 70 here, where the Edinburgh-based player finished joint-16th two years ago.
“I used to think, ‘how’s Martin Kaymer going round here in an average of four or five-under to shoot between 16 and 20-under,” said Ramsay of the German, a three-time champion in this event. “To be honest, I just didn’t see it. You obviously have to drive it well and also putt well. But I see more scores like that now.”
The three-time European Tour winner was pleased to see some putts drop in his first round of the year, having worked hard on that part of his game over the winter, including a whole week in the indoor facility at Hazeltine, where he won the US Amateur in 2006.
Having also come out here early, he was equally happy that some stringent club-testing with his coach, Ian Rae, had helped him hit the ground running on such an encouraging note at the start of another long campaign.
“I have no equipment contracts at all this year so the last few days we did some testing, which was all performance-based,” said Ramsay. “I’ve bought myself a Trackman, having took what I did last year and invested it in my game as those one per cent gains are huge.
“I felt really comfortable with the four new clubs, which also include a 3-wood and a 4 and 5-iron which flight it higher. We worked on my numbers with my distances and all of that built up my confidence. I felt ready today and it shows in the way I played.”