Ireland’s Shane Lowry reaped the rewards of some concerted practice by equalling the course record with a stunning 62 in the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Lowry, who is seeking a first victory since 2015, carded 10 birdies and no bogeys to finish 10 under par, three shots clear of Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal, France’s Mike Lorenzo-Vera and the South African pair of Louis Oosthuizen and Richard Sterne.
England’s Ian Poulter overcame the effects of an epic journey from Hawaii to card an opening 66 which was matched by three-time winner Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Soren Kjeldsen and Alexander Bjork.
Lowry has not played competitively since finishing 10th alongside Paul Dunne in the World Cup in Melbourne in November, but reaped the rewards of a lengthy spell of practice at the start of the new year.
“I had a lovely break at Christmas,” said Lowry, whose 62 equalled the record set by Henrik Stenson in the inaugural edition of the event in 2006. “I was home for the whole lot of it and I came out here with my family and rented a house in Dubai.
“We’ve had it since January 3. Myself and Paul Dunne are sharing the house and we’re practising together and we’ve been playing a lot together over at the Els Club in Dubai and we got some great work done.
“I feel good about my game. It’s probably the best pre-season I’ve ever done, and it showed today. I’m just hoping I can keep going.
“I didn’t hit as many fairways as I would have liked, but I was hitting everything close and managed to hole a couple of putts as well. It was one of those days where it just felt comfortable.
“But look, I just want to enjoy it because it’s a great day and I think it equals my best round I’ve ever had, so enjoy it and then get out tomorrow and see what I can do.”
Qualifying for next year’s Ryder Cup will not get under way until September, but with close friend Padraig Harrington already confirmed as Europe’s captain for Whistling Straits in 2020, Lowry makes no secret of his desire to secure a debut in the contest.
“I could have got in a few events in America with my category and maybe got an invite here or there, but my main goal for the next 18 months is to be on the Ryder Cup team,” added Lowry, who lost his PGA Tour card at the end of last season.
“I’ve never played Ryder Cup and I really want to at some stage, but to play with him (Harrington) as my captain would be unbelievable. That’s my plan.”
In contrast to Lowry’s lengthy preparation in nearby Dubai, Poulter only arrived in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday evening following a 34-hour journey after contesting the first two PGA Tour events of 2019 in Hawaii.
“I set off 11:30 Sunday night, got to LA at 6:30 in the morning, nine hours to wait to get the flight from LA, 16 hours later land in Dubai,” Poulter told Sky Sports. “Landed last night at 10 past eight, got to the hotel about 10:15 last night and felt pretty tired.
“Went to bed, woke up at six this morning, and actually felt okay. But the last sort of five holes was a struggle. I feel like I’ve had a few pints, even though I haven’t, and I could do with some sleep.”
World number two Brooks Koepka, who can return to the top of the rankings with a victory this week, is five shots off the pace following a 67, with defending champion Tommy Fleetwood two shots further back in pursuit of a third straight win in the £5.4million event.