Charl Schwartzel took a one-stroke lead Thursday at the Abu Dhabi Championship with an 8-under 64 in the first round.
The South African had nine birdies -- eight in the first 12 holes -- to lead Padraig Harrington by one shot in the first stop on the European Tour’s three-event Middle East Swing.
2011 ABU DHABI HSBC CHAMPIONSHIP
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship kicks off the European Tour's three-event 'Middle East Swing' that also includes Dubai and Qatar.
U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell shot 66 and finished with five straight birdies. He’s tied with Swedish pair Alexander Noren and Niclas Fasth.
Defending champion Martin Kaymer had a 67 and Lee Westwood finished with a 69. Masters champion Phil Mickelson was seven shots behind the leader.
The 26-year-old Schwartzel's dazzling form in his home country this winter – he won the Joburg Open for a second successive year last Sunday – was on display again, as he is now an incredible 60 under par for his last 13 rounds. Not one of them has been higher than 70.
He had a 61 in the second round last week, but against a stellar field -- all four current major champions, plus world No. 1 Lee Westwood -- and in a far tougher test his start Thursday was probably even better.
"It was a fantastic round," said the world's 23rd-ranked player, who in his last four events has finished second, fourth, fourth and first. "The course is set up the toughest I've seen it. You have to have everything on song, otherwise you are going to struggle."
Schwartzel, who won back-to-back titles at the start of last year, was 8 under after only 12 holes, bogeyed the 17th, but birdied the par-5 last to edge back in front of Harrington.
Not for the first time, the 39-year-old Dubliner has changed all sorts of things in his game during his layoff over Christmas. He expects them to take a year to bed in, so was thrilled to start his season so well.
Harrington's round included a chip-in eagle at the 597-yard eighth -- his 17th -- although that owed a little to the luck of the Irish, as he struck the shot too hard.
"I was shocked it went in at that pace,” he admitted afterward. "On another day, that would have been 69. There were some errors in there, but I certainly got the most out of it."
Closing with a 15-footer par was another bonus and made up for his first putt of the day. The three-time major winner confessed he was "away with the fairies" over that one.
Graeme McDowell said he was "a bit flat" on the front nine, but suddenly found form and with closing birdies for an inward 30 he joined Swedes Alex Noren and Niclas Fasth in third place on 66.
The U.S. Open champion and Ryder Cup hero did have an anxious moment after he finished, though, as he and senior referee Andy McFee looked at video of him addressing the ball before his pitch to the 18th. But there was no penalty as it was ruled he had caused the ball to oscillate, but not move.
"I was a little bit too close and grazed it, but I was very confident," said McDowell.
Playing partner and Masters champion Phil Mickelson managed only a 71 on his desert debut, but PGA Championship winner and defending champion Martin Kaymer shot 67 to be well in the hunt for a third win in four years at the tournament. Not that the German needs that to take the world No. 2 spot off Tiger Woods. A top-seven finish on Sunday will do for that.
Westwood, certain to stay top for at least one more week, kept his hopes of a winning start to 2011 alive with a 69. Rory McIlroy is alongside Mickelson, while twice winner Paul Casey and last year's runner-up Ian Poulter struggled to 73 and 75, respectively.
Colin Montgomerie's 70 meant he won the head-to-head between last year's Ryder Cup captain and new one Jose Maria Olazabal by five.