Stenson won the Open at Royal Troon last year after a thrilling duel with Phil Mickelson, equalling the lowest score in major history with a 63 in the final round.
The 40-year-old Swede went on to win the Race to Dubai for the second time in four years and was quick to target more silverware after a flawless 64 in Abu Dhabi, the only venue on the European Tour’s ‘Desert Swing’ where he has yet to record a victory.
Scotland’s Marc Warren returned an impressive 66, which included eight birdies, which left him nestled in a tie for second place.
But it was Stenson who set the pace. “I just want to keep on developing my game, keep on working hard on that and come into the majors well prepared and well rested and try to put myself into contention,” Stenson said. “I feel like I can make that Claret Jug get some company if I can do that so I’m going to try my hardest.”
Stenson admitted he had practised his skiing more than his golf in the off-season and only arrived in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday morning, making a stopover in Stockholm on the way to collect his award for Sweden’s male sports star of the year. But the world No 4 showed no signs of rust as he started from the 10th and raced to the turn in 30, before picking up further shots on the seventh and ninth.
“Lack of sleep, lack of practice, but I’m obviously delighted with that score,” Stenson said. “I think I scored a bit better than I played but I kept it under control somewhat, hit a couple of close iron shots and made the putts.
“There wasn’t too much stress out there after all.”
At eight under par, Stenson held a two-shot lead over three-time winner and Ryder Cup team-mate Martin Kaymer, whose 66 was matched by Warren, England’s Oliver Fisher and Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
Kaymer already has two majors under his belt, but is without a win since the 2014 US Open and that meant he could not bring himself to copy Stenson’s winter regime.
“I had a bad conscience in the wintertime because since 2005, every winter, I spent it in America over Christmas and New Year’s Eve,” Kaymer said.
“And then the last two years, I went skiing. Especially after my 2014 season when I won my second major, you kind of take it a little bit easier. And then you see it the next year on the golf course, where I had a lot of top-10 finishes, but that little bit of extra that you need in order to win was missing.
“Therefore, [this time] I went back to America and practised.”
On a day when 75 players broke par, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Julien Quesne were all three off the lead after rounds of 67, with Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn and Lee Westwood among 17 players on four under.
Defending champion Rickie Fowler and fellow American Dustin Johnson had to settle for level-par rounds of 72, while Masters champion Danny Willett struggled to a 74 which included a triple-bogey seven on the 14th.