THOMAS Pieters fired eight birdies in an impressive round of 67 to open up a one-shot lead in the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Much thicker rough than normal and a testing wind made Emirates Golf Club a sterner challenge than in recent years.
But the Belgian made a strong start as he chases his fifth European Tour win off the back of a tied 30th result last week in Abu Dhabi.
The 27-year-old was quickly the man to catch after starting on the 10th, making birdies on his opener, the 11th, 13th, 15th and 18th.
A double bogey on the first knocked him back and when he followed it with a dropped shot on the next, he had gone from one in front to two behind.
But the Ryder Cup star birdied the fifth and sixth before hitting a beautiful tee shot into the seventh for his third two of the round to edge a shot ahead of the field.
Pieters, who won the 2016 Made in Denmark to seal his place in Darren Clarke’s European Ryder Cup team at Hazetline, said: “My drives and three woods weren’t very good.
“But somehow I found the greens and if I did hit a fairway, I took advantage of it.
“I played the par threes very well. So that means I’m hitting my irons pretty good as I did last week and I just rolled in a few putts, which was nice.
“I’ve been working on my putting real hard, and I just hope to see some progress.
“I saw that today. Hopefully we can keep it up. I know I’m hitting the ball quite nice, and I’m just looking forward to the next three days.
“There was nothing easy about today, but I found 14 greens, which is always nice in these kind of conditions.”
Thomas Pieters admitted it was hard to guage how much progress he had made over the winter break so early in the season.
“You don’t know what to expect, even though you’ve put the work in,” said Pieters.
“That competitive mind-set sometimes takes awhile to kick in. But today was, I think, one of my better rounds of the year.”
American David Lipsky led the way early in the day with five birdies and a single dropped shot to get to four-under.
Lipsky said: “ I hit a lot of fairways and greens, and out here with the way the rough is, and how firm the greens are, you’ve got hit fairways to attack pins.
“The greens are so firm that coming into the greens from the rough is really tough.
“I was fortunate. I was first off so the wind died down my first six, seven holes – took advantage of those.
“With how tight the fairways are, and how they are always at angles, finding the fairways is tough out here and that’s key.
“I just want to put myself in contention more often, with a little bit more consistency to my game.
“I worked really hard in the off-season with my swing coach and I’m seeing it play dividends right now.”
Lipsky sits one-shot clear of a large chasing pack that includes countryman Kurt Kitayama, Oxfordshire’s Eddie Pepperell,
Pepperell, whose second European Tour win came in the 2018 British Masters at Walton Heath, said: “I’m really happy with that.
“It was clear early on it was going to be very, very challenging,” added Eddie, whose breakthrough win came in Qatar two years ago.
“I played a good round of golf today and proud of that – if you know my record on Thursdays.
“It was, I imagine, fun to watch. The course has gone from being a five-under cut to, I suspect, being a couple-over cut,” added Pepperell, who signed a contract to switch to Ping clubs earlier this month.
The 28-year-old, from Abingdon, has also adopted a new putting grip this week.
“The claw grip was inspired a little by Lee Westwood. I must say, I’ve been struggling with the greens,” he said.
“I’ve never been a good putter on Tour, but for me, it’s about not being a terrible putter.
“I was watching the golf last Sunday and I couldn’t believe how comfortable Lee looked on the short putts, especially.
“I thought, I might as well give this a try. I was very good today inside six-eight feet. So I’m optimistic. Best I’ve putted for a while.”
Tied alongside the Frilford Heath member is Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, and Dane Søren Kjeldsen, who made his 600th European Tour appearance last week.
Defending champ DeChambeau: It’s tough
DEFENDING champion Bryson DeChambeau is at two-under after an opening round of 70 left him a shot ahead of Major Champions Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Louis Oosthuizen.
DeChambeau said: “It’s a very, very good test of golf and you have to make sure your wedge game is on, and your iron play is on.
“It’s playing at least four shots harder a day,” said the former US Amateur Champion, comparing the first round to last year when he won outside America for the first time.
DeChambeau, who won four times in the States in 2018, added: “Iron play was great out of the rough and the fairway, and my wedge game around the greens was impeccable.
“Stuff I’m doing there is awesome. I’m putting still really well. I feel like I’m rolling it on my line except one putt on six today.
“Other than that, it was pretty much smooth sailing and still working on the driver. That’s a work-in-progress, but it will be a work-in-progress until I get the right stuff in my hands.”
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