South African Justin Harding produced a five-under-par round to be in second place after the opening round of the Saudi International. Photo: Martin Dokoupil/EPA

Belgian Thomas Pieters struck a flawless seven-under-par 63 to carve out a two-shot lead after the opening round of the inaugural Saudi International in King Abdullah Economic City on Thursday.

Starting on the back nine, the three-time European Tour winner made birdies on the 12th and 13th holes, and another on the 17th to turn in 32, before adding four more birdies on the front nine.

“I hit my wedges and short irons really close to the hole,” Pieters said. “I think I had maybe 10 good chances for birdie, and made seven of them.

“I thought with the wind, it’s going to play quite easy. If you play in the morning, you’re going to have to make a good score.”

Englishmen Alfie Plant and Ross Fisher and South African duo Zander Lombard and Justin Harding were in a group of six players tied for second, alongside Australian Jake McLeod and Italy’s Renato Paratore.

Plant scorched the back nine with seven birdies to turn in 28, but slipped back after carding bogeys on the par-four sixth and ninth holes.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “Pretty much flagged it all the way on the front nine, which is nice. I always thought the front nine was a little bit more challenging. You’ve got to hit a lot more good shots.”

World No 1 Justin Rose finished at par in a tie for 65th place after making three birdies and three bogeys, with American Brooks Koepka, the World No 2, a shot ahead on 69 in a group that included former US Masters champion Sergio Garcia.

World No 3 Dustin Johnson edged ahead of Rose and Koepka after signing for a two-under 68 to sit alongside fellow American Bryson DeChambeau, last week’s Dubai Desert Classic champion, and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson in a group tied for 31st place.

Reuters