Abu Dhabi (AFP) - World number one Brooks Koepka made a superb comeback from a 14-week injury layoff, shooting a bogey-free six-under par 66 on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi Championship on Thursday.
In the opening Rolex Series event of the European Tour season, that round left Koepka two shots behind leaders Renato Paratore and Shaun Norris, but it laid to rest all speculation about the fitness of the American four-time major champion.
The 29-year-old Koepka was tied for third alongside Jason Scrivener of Australia, with six players in joint fifth on five-under, including former Masters champion Sergio Garcia.
Defending Abu Dhabi and British Open champion Shane Lowry of Ireland started his campaign with a two-under par 70. Paired in the same group as Koepka, the world number 19 paid for a double bogey on the par-three 12th hole.
Koepka was well in control of his game and rarely courted trouble. He also wielded a hot putter, making four of his six birdies from well outside 12 feet.
"It's good to be back. I missed the competition, obviously," he said. "Played really solid and if I really want to pick it apart, I missed a few putts early in the round.
"But I drove the ball well, controlled the ball flight and controlled the distances really well and that's what you have to do out here."
Koepka, who had to undergo stem cell treatment late last year for his left knee, said he felt fine after walking 18 holes for the past three days.
"The knee feels fine. It was a little sore last night," he added. "Just did some treatment on it. That's expected. This is a first week I've walked 18 holes and I've done it three times already.
"I'm very pleased with how I played today. It will be nice to be able to practice again. I haven't been able to practice much last year... I just couldn't. It was too painful and wasn't being able to do the things I wanted to do...
"You don't forget how to swing the golf club."
- Norris 'maturing with age' -
Italian Paratore and South Africa's Norris had just one blemish each on their cards, both dropping shots on the difficult par-three seventh hole.
Norris, who finished second in the Japan Golf Tour Order of Merit for the past two years, was one-under through seven holes before making four birdies around the turn and then added three more in a row from the 14th onwards.
"I have been joking with my mum and brother that I am like wine, maturing with age," said the 37-year-old.
"I hit the ball nicely today. Gave myself a few chances...
"As soon as I made the putt on the eighth, and then ninth, just started feeling like it's snowballing. I started hitting better shots closer to the holes."
The 23-year-old Paratore, looking for his second European Tour win following his triumph in the 2017 Nordea Masters, closed with four straight birdies.
"I started really good and made some good putts on the first two holes. That gave me good confidence for the rest of the day, and I keep making putts. It's been a really enjoyable day," said the Italian who finished second in his last tournament of 2019 in Mauritius.
"I just tried to stay focused on my game on every shot, and I managed to finish really good making some nice putts on the last four holes."
Two-time Abu Dhabi champion Tommy Fleetwood opened with a one-under par 71, while three-time champion Martin Kaymer of Germany shot a four-under 68.