FRANCESCO Laporta birdied his last five holes in a stunning nine-under par round of 63 to leap to the top of the leaderboard at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The Italian secured his playing rights after topping the European Challenge Tour’s Road to Mallorca Rankings in 2019.
And he displayed the form that saw him win twice in three weeks last season as he went bogey-free to get to 10 under par after the second round of the first Rolex Series event in the 2020 Race to Dubai.
Laporta seems to have taken inspiration from fellow countryman Francesco Molinari’s achievements.
Since his victory in The Open, in 2018, and helped Europe inflict the heaviest ever Ryder Cup defeat on the USA in Paris three months later, Laporta has joined the winners circle in 2019.
Meanwhile Guido Migliozzi has picked up two wins on the European Tour last season and Andrea Pavan won twice since Molinari’s Major breakthrough to add to the growing Italian success on the Continent.
Laporta would clearly love to join Migliozzi, Pavan and the Molinari brothers as winners on the European Tour.
“I played solid all 18 holes,” said Laporta. “My putting was solid, my driver, my irons.
“I gave myself a lot of opportunity for birdies, and so when I had the opportunities, I took it. Every time I was putting for birdie, I made it. It was a great day.
“I’m feeling good. On the Challenge Tour I got more opportunity to play, so that was good.
“I didn’t start the season good. I missed the cut in South Africa two times, and this is the third event and I’m leading, so I just want to enjoy the weekend.”
Yorkshire’s former US Amateur Champion Matt Fitzpatrick had set the target at nine-under – without dropping a shot in his last 36 holes.
And it looked as if the five-time European Tour winner would be the man to beat, before Spain’s Rolex Series winner Rafa Cabrera-Bello made four birdies on the back nine to join him.
But Laporta went one better, recording the lowest round of the week – and his lowest of the season so far after missed cuts in his opening two events – to overtake the Ryder Cup team-mates.
Fitzpatrick, who had four runner ups finishes in 2019 is still looking for his first win since teaming up with caddy Billy Foster, long-term caddy of Lee Westwood, earlier last season.
Fitzpatrick, whose last win came at the Omega European Masters in 2018, said: “For the first week of the year to have no bogeys, I couldn’t ask for a better start.
“Just played really disciplined golf and it’s worked out well so far.
“I took it easy as soon as I finished in Dubai, slowly started to build it up and then two weeks ago really into it and got ready for the start of the year.
“But when we went to play nine holes on Tuesday, I felt a little bit uncomfortable.
It all felt sort of new again after seven weeks off, and then as the round went on, I got into it again.
“For me every event is the same. You’re here to win. It’s always a nice bonus, playing for more money and more Ryder Cup points, but you’ve got to go in with the same attitude.”
Cabrera-Bello was also pleased with his form as he looks to add a second Rolex Series title to his CV after winning the Scottish Open three years ago.
Rafa said: “Very pleased obviously for posting another very good score. My game got better throughout the day, and I played good golf.
“I made some really, really good putts that gave me great momentum, but then I also hit some good shots that gave myself opportunities.
“I’ve been doing things good and I’m having that little bit of luck that you always need, added Cabrera Bello, who has a win in the United Arab Emirates after victoy in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in 2012.
“I’ve pretty much done what I do every off-season. I had some time off, I enjoyed it and took my mind off golf.
“And then I practiced hard at the beginning of the year and preparing myself for these weeks. It hasn’t been anything particularly different than other years.
“I played better on the back nine, primarily because those two huge putts made the biggest difference, but I mean, we’ve played here before.
“We know almost every kind of wind that can happen here, and we want it to be calm.
“But we kind of know that in the afternoons, the wind tends to pick up, and we just have to feel lucky that on the front nine, it wasn’t so windy.
Koepka struggles after fast start in 1st round
MAJOR winner Sergio Garcia and Italy’s Renato Paratore are two shots off the lead at eight-under.
World No. 6 Patrick Cantlay – fellow American Kurt Kitayama– Spaniard Adri Arnaus, 2010 Open Champion Louis Oosthuizen and former World No. 1 Lee Westwood are next at seven-under.
World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, who was two shots off the lead after a fine 66 on Thursday, fared less well on his return to competitive golf after his knee problems in 2019.
The four-time Major winner made a birdie, birdie start before dropping three shots in three holes, after a double bogey at the fifth.
A two at the seventh was cancelled out by a bogey at the eighth and another double at the 11th after he picked up his fourth birdie at the 10th, was compoounded by a bogey six at the last.
That saw the Florida ace slide down the leaderboard to 33rd place after a three-over par 75.
That left last year’s USPGA Champion on three-under, alongside tournament co-favourite Tommy Fleetwood, who added a 70 to his opening 71.
•To follow Francesco Laporta and the rest of the live scores in Saturday’s third round click here.