Sweden’s Robert Karlsson found the grass greener at Jumeirah Golf Estates producing a sizzling opening round of 65 on his debut at the Earth course to storm into the lead at the Dubai World Championships presented by DP World on Thursday.
“It seems the greens are a lot softer at this time of the year because there’s more moisture in the air. So the greens are way more receptive here than they have ever been in Emirates or Qatar or wherever we play,” said Karlsson who picked up his tenth European Tour title earlier this year with a three-stroke victory in Qatar.
Race to Dubai leader Germany’s Martin Kaymer kept on course to emerge as the new European number one by finishing two strokes behind Karlsson to prevail over his nearest challenger Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
South Korean teenager Seung-yul Noh was the surprise package on the opening day of the European Tour’s season-ending tournament when he grabbed the early lead and finished second with seven-under score of 66.
But all eyes were on the 26-year-old Kaymer who showed steely determination throughout the round which was only marred by a bogey on the fourth as he helped himself to four birdies and a 70-foot eagle on the third to edge out his rival McDowell who just managed to finish on par thanks to three birdies.
Kaymer, third in the Race to Dubai last season and coming into the season finale with a hat-trick of European Tour victories, played like a man in form. He calmly extricated from a difficult situation on the eight in particular to save par but was unfortunate to see his birdie attempt on the 18th lip the cup.
"I'm very happy... 67 is a great round. I played solid golf. My putting felt good," said Kaymer who joined golf's elite this year with a breakthrough Major victory at the US PGA Championship in August.
"It was the highlight of my career but this week I have a very realistic chance to win the Race to Dubai and become the best player in Europe. So I would consider that as the biggest week of my career," who said thoughts of being world number one were far away.
"It's not really on my mind. The Race to Dubai is big enough. If it happens it would be nice but if it doesn't, as long as I win the Race to Dubai, it's fine. I had a fantastic season," said Kaymer who has a five-shot lead over McDowell.
McDowell admitted he was “left in the dust literally” after his desert duel with Ryder Cup team-mate Kaymer.
The reigning US Open holder, who has been suffering from a head cold all week, will tee off nearly 2 1/2 hours earlier in the second round and is nowhere near throwing in the towel yet.
“It frustrated me a little bit playing with him because he was playing so well,” he said.
“He kind of left me in the dust literally out there, so it’s great to get away from him and the distraction tomorrow.
“In the morning there will be a little less grain on the greens and they will be a little less scuffed up. It should be a good chance to make some putts.
“He’s a pretty emotionless guy and would be a helluva poker player. He’s a cool customer - there were no signs of any nerves and I was very impressed.”
Asked about his own health he commented: “No room for excuses. I have to come out and feel 100 per cent and ready to go.
“I’m here to do a job and I certainly haven’t shot myself in the foot just yet. He’s five ahead of me, that’s all.”
Karlsson could have easily surpassed defending champion Lee Westwood’s course record of 64 set last year, if not for a triple bogey. But the gangly 41-year-old Swede was blissfully unaware of it as he weighed in with eight birdies and an eagle on the 14th to turn the tide.
“I didn’t know that much about the course except that there’s been a lot of low score last year,” admitted Karlsson who played only a few practice rounds prior to the Pro-Am.
“I think it’s one of those courses, when you’re playing well it’s easy to get close to the pins. But if you are off the sort of bowls of the pins, it’s very difficult to set yourself. So I think that’s why my score today was a bit like that. Made a lot of good stuff and when I missed it, it was difficult to save myself,” he explained.
World number one Westwood who won the double in Dubai last year was way off the pace though finishing with a respectable three-under 69.
“You can’t win tournaments on Thursdays, so it’s a decent start. My main priority is on the Masters next year now. So it’s really pleasing me that I’m coming out and competitive straightaway,” said Westwood whose season has been curtailed by injuries.
Earlier, South Korean teenager Seung-yul Noh set the early pace with a near flawless performance to take the clubhouse lead by firing six birdies for a six-under score of 66.
Noh, ranked 40 in the Race to Dubai who burst into the limelight this season at the Maybank Malaysian Open to become the youngest professional winner on the European Tour at the age of 18 years and 281 days, displayed why he is one of the hottest talents in the world scene with a composed performance.
“It’s a great experience to be playing amongst the best in the world right now and a great advantage for my career at this stage,” said a beaming Noh who is set to become the youngest top ranked player in the Asian Tour next month.
Noh had a bogey free round displaying his maturity to save par with a five-footer in the opening hole after his tee shot landed in the woods.
“I had an atrocious drive on the first swing and it was right next to the tree stub. I had to really play conservative,” said Noh who felt his short game helped him out of tricky situations.
“It’s definitely not an easy course for sure but I managed very well,” said Noh who is delighted at the prospect of battling for a share of the $7.5 million prize bonus which goes to the top 15 finishers.
Ranked 69th in the world, Noh’s next target is to break into the top-50 and secure a spot in the Masters.
South African Charl Schwartzel who finished among the top 10, fired the first hole-in-one at this championships when he got an ace in the 186-yard par-three sixth hole. But he only got a 69 after his four birdies were offset by a triple bogey.
Leading first round scores on Thursday (par 72):
65 - Robert Karlsson (SWE)
66 - Noh Seung-Yul (KOR)
67 - Martin Kaymer (GER)
68 - Thongchai Jaidee (THA)
69 - Henrik Stenson (SWE), Sergio Garcia (ESP), Alejandro Canizares (ESP), Charl Schwartzel (RSA), Ian Poulter (ENG), Lee Westwood (ENG)
70 - Thomas Aiken (RSA), Gary Boyd (ENG), David Horsey (ENG), Rafael Jacquelin (FRA), Paul Casey (ENG), Miguel Angel Jimenez (ESP)
71 - Robert-Jan Derksen (NED), Darren Clarke (NIR), Soren Kjeldsen (DEN), Brett Rumford (AUS), YE Yang (KOR), Ross Fisher (ENG), Rory McIlroy (NIR), Francesco Molinari (ITA)
72 - Gregory Bourdy (FRA), Simon Dyson (ENG), Marcus Fraser (AUT), Richard Green (AUS), Gregory Havret (FRA), Joost Luiten (NED), Alvaro Quiros (ESP), Graeme McDowell (NIR)
73 - Johan Edfors (SWE), Chris Wood (ENG), Richie Ramsay (SCO), Gareth Maybin (NIR), Simon Khan (ENG), Ignacio Garrido (ESP), Stephen Gallacher (SCO), Gonzalo Fdez-Castano (ESP), Louis Oosthuizen (RSA) Ernie Els (RSA)