Richard Sterne nearly broke the course record at the Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday, shooting 10-under 62 in the first round to finish one shot clear of Stephen Gallacher.
The 165th-ranked South African, who has struggled in recent years with back problems, started with three birdies on his first four holes in unusually calm conditions. Sterne was on pace to break the course record of 61 set by Ernie Els in 1994, but couldn’t convert late birdie chances.
“It’s as good a start as I could have hoped for,” said Sterne, whose back trouble limited him to a handful of tournaments in 2010 and 2011. “As I said, these guys these days, the depth is so much more than it used to be. The field is not as strong as it always is here, which I suppose is a good thing, but the guys can still play.
“Just put three more solid rounds together and hopefully come Sunday, that’s enough.”
Gallacher also had a strong start with three birdies and an eagle on the front nine. But he almost fell apart with two straight bogeys on the back before carding an eagle and three birdies on the final four holes to pull into contention.
Scott Jamieson, Chris Doak and Tommy Fleetwood were a further two shots back in third. Coming off a rookie season in which Fleetwood nearly lost his card, the Englishman said he was happy to be in the hunt so early in 2013.
“There were no mistakes in there which is something that is new to me,” Fleetwood said. “I would say I played better in the past couple of weeks and just not scored at all, so it was nice to get it going.”
Six others, including Paul Casey and Noh Seung-yul, were tied for sixth at 6 under, while 10 others, including Lee Westwood, were at 5 under.
Even though he was five shots back, Westwood said he “really enjoyed” the first round. The Englishman has been through a lot of changes in the offseason - moving his family to the United States, and adding some new clubs to his bag. But unlike top-ranked Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut in Abu Dhabi with his new Nike clubs, Westwood didn’t seem to miss a beat in his season-opening tournament.
“Very sharp, made some nice putts, and I played better today than I finished off the last few tournaments so really pleased,” Westwood said. “It was steady; still not made any bogeys this year, so it’s good ... It didn’t feel like the first round of the year.”
Westwood will spend the evening at the nearby Meydan Racecourse cheering on Rerouted, a 5-year-old horse he co-owns with his manager, which is running in the Dubai Casthouse Trophy.
Two-time major winner Mark O’Meara also was at 5 under, playing the kind of golf that earned him the Dubai title in 2004.
“I realize that I can’t hit the ball like the kids can, but yet I’m still driving it a reasonable distance and around here, it’s so important to hit the fairway, and I drove the ball pretty well today,” said O’Meara, who won in Dubai when he was 47. “I kept the ball in play most all day long and that enabled me to be a little more aggressive and hit more greens.
“Listen, when I can hit the ball like that and give myself opportunities, I look forward to getting back out there tomorrow.”
Sergio Garcia, who finished second last week in Qatar, was a further shot back at 4 under in a tie for 22nd.
Richard Sterne leads the Dubai Desert Classic