Abu Dhabi Championship: Paul McGinley rolled back the years with vintage opening round
But Rory McIlroy will perhaps be the happiest player in the field...
Last Updated: 17/01/14 2:55pm
At sunrise on day one at the National Course in Abu Dhabi, the fans were in position at the par-five 10th hole to welcome Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and the defending champion, Welshman Jamie Donaldson. At 7.40am, the marquee three-ball began their championship.
Donaldson got off to the best start moving quickly to two under, but he gave these two back at the 16th, his seventh hole, and never really found top gear. He would finish with a 73.
McIlroy and Mickelson were treading water, each starting their championship with eight consecutive pars. A birdie at the 18th, Rory's ninth, had him out in 35, and another birdie at five took him to two under.
Mickelson continued on the par train but dropped his only shot at his last hole. No birdies for Mickelson, I wonder when that last happened? Even he could not recall.
The early leader was the Abu Dhabi course specialist and three-time champion Martin Kaymer, whose record here is hugely impressive. In 24 rounds the German is 83 under par with a scoring average of 68.54, and amazingly he has at some point birdied all of the 18 holes!
Five birdies in the first 13 had him at the top of the leaderboard before a double bogey at five dropped him back into the pack. He would match McIlroy's 70.
At lunchtime, Southport's Matthew Baldwin shared the lead with Frenchman Romain Wattel and former Dubai champion Rafael Cabrera-Bello on five under - a more than decent target for the afternoon section to match, or pass.
There was disappointment for Sergio Garcia who has never finished outside the top 15 in five attempts here. Garcia required treatment on a shoulder injury during the round and stumbled to a four-over-par 76.
Three-time major winner, Padraig Harrington, fifth last week in Durban, continued his good play with a one under 71, but the surprise challenger who emerged from the second half of the field came in the shape of European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.
A four-time winner on tour, McGinley rolled back the years with a vintage display of ball striking and, for once, he holed his fair share of putts. Six pars and three birdies took him to the turn in 33, and he kept the momentum going with birdies at 10 and 11.
A remarkable pitch-in for bogey at 16 after finding the water minimised the damage and the only other downside of his day came at the last where a superb bunker shot to four feet wasn't converted.
It means a lot to Paul to play well from here to Gleneagles and, after his 68 in round one, he has every reason to feel pleased with his performance.
Some of the big names struggled in an afternoon breeze that dried the course out considerably. Henrik Stenson, Colin Montgomerie, Paul Casey and Miguel Angel Jimenez were on the wrong side of par through the first nine. Three would stay over par, but with a closing birdie, former champion Casey managed a 72.
Luke Donald and Thomas Bjorn will start Friday at two under. Bjorn has won in Qatar and Dubai and would like this one to complete the "desert set". That's the same goal for Henrik Stenson, who limped home with a two-over 74.
With five under posted at lunchtime, that score held up through the rest of the day, but perhaps the happiest player in the field will be young McIlroy.
He seems free of the chains that held him back last year. The smile and the swagger has returned, the talent was never in doubt. Rory begins the second round three off the lead, and many believe he will be in the mix on Sunday. Not many don't.
One final point on day one was the marvellous set up of the Abu Dhabi golf course. Phil Mickelson said: "You have to be careful as some of the lies in the rough are quite severe".
Yes, that is true, but you are talking about setting up the course to test some of the finest players in the game today. In my opinion, that examination needs to be a stern one.
Straight driving is very much part of the game and those who hit most fairways should have the advantage over those who don't. You will not beat these players will length alone, but you will identify the best of them by putting the premium on accuracy.
The Tour should shorten the course on perhaps two of the four days and combine that with tucking the pins away. Give them different tests rather than the same all four rounds.
The courses in the States are too easy. There is little or no rough and that plays into the hands of the long hitters. Their setting up of courses creates one dimensional players.
We copy America too often. The European Tour should take the lead, add variety and ask the players some different questions. When you do that the best will come up with the answers.