Abu Dhabi – Justin Rose grabbed a share of the first round lead in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Thursday on a day when both Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods struggled to get their seasons into gear.
Rose, whose last visit to the Gulf in December for the World Tour Championship in Dubai saw him close with a 62, took off where he left off as he went out in four under 32 en route to a five-under 67.
That put him alongside Welshman Jamie Donaldson, with rising Dane Thorbjorn Olesen and Spain's Pablo Larrazabal third equal a further stroke back.
On 69 were a quintet comprising George Coetzee of South Africa, China's Liang Wen-Chong, Englishman David Howell, Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Michael Campbell of New Zealand.
Woods had four birdies set off by as many bogeys for a level par 72, while McIlroy's first competitive outing with his new Nike clubs ended in frustration as he struggled to a 75 that included two double bogeys.
Fifth-ranked Rose said that his bogey-free 67 in tough conditions on a tough course had been a “perfect start to the season” but that he would not read too much into the eight-stroke gap that separates him from McIlroy and the five strokes lead he has over Woods.
“It's the first round of the year. There are a lot of factors involved, certainly a lot of factors for Rory involved this week,” he said.
“That's not his normal preparation with what he has had to obviously encounter the last couple of weeks, I'm sure.
“Tiger shot level and that's well within the golf tournament. So for me there's really no surprises there.”
Donaldson had a solid start from the 10th but moved swiftly up the leaderboard with three birdies in five holes from the first.
“I hit two ropey wedge shots on the second and third and I made two birdies from them. So that was a turning point for the day and kept the momentum going,” he said.
Playing together and with three-times former Abu Dhabi winner Martin Kaymer completing the grouping, McIlroy and Woods were the day's big draw.
Europe's choice of Paul McGinley as captain for the defence of the trophy at Gleneagles, Scotland in 2014 had dominated most of the build-up to a tournament which has become a platform for the top players to open their seasons.
But the focus in perfect, early morning conditions switched to McIlroy and Woods, who now find themselves as stablemates of sportswear giant Nike following the Northern Irishman's mega-money deal announced here on Monday.
How he would fare with his new clubs was one of the talking points of the day and by the end of it he at least knew he still had some hard work to do to get the hang of them.
“Yeah, a bit of rust for sure,” he said by way of explanation. “Not playing any competitive golf for eight weeks.
“I guess when you're going out with new stuff, you're always going to be a little bit anxious about hitting it close like you've done on the range and today that wasn't quite the case. Hopefully I can do that tomorrow.
“I was really happy with the way the ball is in the wind. Really happy with the irons, the wedge play. I wasn't very comfortable off the tee, but just because I didn't feel like I was swinging it that well.
Woods started well enough, but he started to struggle with a badly topped drive at the first (his 10th) that barely reached the fairway 180 yards away.
He bogeyed that hole and another poor drive on the next brought another bogey. He birdied the eighth but three-putted the last to fall back to level par.
“My game plan (on the first) was to hit 3-iron or 5-wood on that hole, especially with this wind,” he said.
“And then I changed the game-plan and wasn't committed to the shot. I paid the price making bogey.”
Defending champion Robert Rock slumped to a 76, while Ernie Els, playing alongside Rock and Rose, had a 71, the same as Kaymer. – AFP