It Takes Two to Tango, Lead Abu Dhabi Championship
By Conor Nagle under European PGA Tour

Picture perfect: Karlsson had seven birdies on Thurdsday.

Abu Dhabi Golf Club has evolved into a golfing test every bit as imposing as its monumental clubhouse (I hear it doubles as the lair of a supervillain hell-bent, naturally, on world domination). A par-72 that clocks in at a frankly ridiculous 7,600 yards, it’s a layout that places its emphasis firmly on powerful, straight hitting.

Unsurprising, then, that the upper echelons of the first round leaderboard should be dominated – and dominated thoroughly – by class ball-strikers.

Of those equal to the test of posed by the course, it was Sweden’s Robert Karlsson and the reigning US Open champion, Rory McIlroy, who took fullest advantage. Both carded five-under-par 67s to share the overnight lead.

Though McIlroy will bear the mantle of tournament favourite, particularly given the dismal performance of world number four Martin Kaymer (77), a three-time winner of the event, one would be foolish to ignore the threat posed by Karlsson. Something of Gulf specialist, the Swede has captured titles in both Qatar and Dubai previously.

Indeed, his win at the 2010 Race to Dubai finale, the Dubai World Championship, came on a course and set-up not at all dissimilar to that facing the field this week.

Lest we lose ourselves in quiet contemplation of the pair at the top of the leaderboard, it’s worth mentioning that their nearest challengers, Richard Finch, Jean-Baptiste Gonnet and McIlroy’s compatriot Gareth Maybin, are a mere shot off their pace.

If none of that trio can be considered genuine challengers, the group in a tie for sixth place a shot further distant at least contains the name of Nicolas Colsaerts, for whom frustration may well prove a powerful incentive. The Belgian missed out on the play-off that decided last week’s Champions tournament in South Africa by a single shot after carding a clumsy bogey at the final hole.

Alongside Colsaerts’ are the names of Golf Digest Hottest Golfer quarter-finalist Robert Rock (lost to Martin Kaymer 69% to 31%) and former US Amateur champion Richie Ramsay.

Tiger Woods heads an eleven-strong group of players at two-under-par that includes Charl Schwartzel, who could easily have improved on his top-five placing last week, Michael Hoey and José Manuel Lara, who carded one of two holes-in-one at the par-three 12th.

The other was went to Sergio Garcia (his first on the European Tour), currently alongside Padraig Harrington, KJ Choi and World Number One Luke Donald in a tie for 20th.

Conor Nagle