Recap of the day
Morning wave: With the wind down and scoring conditions ideal, Renato Paratore emerged as the leader from the a.m. wave after closing with four straight birdies for an 8-under-par 64. But much of the attention was on Brooks Koepka, who was playing his first competitive round since withdrawing from October's CJ CUP after aggravating a long-standing knee injury. The World No. 1 didn't disappoint, hoisting up a 6-under 66 to share second spot with Aussie Jason Scrivener. A bunch at 5-under included Spanish duo Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello while defending champion Shane Lowry had to settle for a 2-under 70, eight shots higher than the opening round which paved the way for his wire-to-wire win here at Abu Dhabi GC 12 months ago.
Afternoon wave: With the wind picking up, it looked unlikely if anyone could catch Paratore but Shaun Norris did just that, making seven birdies in nine holes from the 8th before a pair of closing pars. The only other players from the afternoon wave to finish in the top ten were Kurt Kitayama and HaoTong Li, who both fired 67s to join the bunch at 5-under.
Finally, the European Tour are putting in place a slow-play policy this season, with a one-shot penalty for two bad times in a tournament. There was just one issued today and it was a big name too. Nope, not Bryson DeChambeau but Norway's Viktor Hovland, who struggled to a 1-over 73.
Notables: -4 Branden Grace, Thomas Pieters, Matthew Fitzpatrick, -3 Bernd Wiesberger, Louis Oosthuizen, -2 Shane Lowry, -1 Patrick Cantlay, Tommy Fleetwood, Danny Willett, Evs Bryson DeChambeau, +1 Viktor Hovland, Matt Wallace.
Revised outright betting
7/2 Koepka, 14/1 Garcia, 16/1 Fitzpatrick, Pieters, 18/1 Norris, Grace, 20/1 Cabera Bello, Paratore, 22/1 Oosthuizen, 25/1 Li, Kitayama, 28/1 Scrivener.
Friday weather forecast
It's another typical sunny day in the UAE (hard to imagine now all the heavy rain in the days leading up to this event), with morning temperatures in the high 60s and moving into the early 70s in the afternoon. The afternoon wave had tougher conditions on day one but wind speeds look more even for Friday, with it blowing around 9-10mph from start to finish.
Leaders after at 18 holes
Renato Paratore (64) – Birdied half the holes, including the final four. It's the third time he's had a piece of the 18-hole lead on the European Tour and the last time he led the way on day one, the Italian went on to win the 2017 Nordea Masters.
Shaun Norris (64) – After a run of 3-2-2-4 on the Japan Tour, expectations were raised for his home South African Open last week but he rather underperformed with T36. However, with the pressure off today, Norris blasted nine birdies against a lone bogey to joint Paratore in T1. It's his first 18-hole lead on the European Tour although he's led after the opening lap three times on the Japan Tour, finishing 5th, 1st and 2nd.
Fate of the favorites
Brooks Koepka certainly delivered but Patrick Cantlay played 12 and 13 in double bogey-bogey and had to settle for a 1-under 71, as did two-time Abu Dhabi winner Tommy Fleetwood, who managed only three birdies. Louis Oosthuizen also posted just a trio of red circles but added 15 pars so made the most of them.
Renato Paratore (64) – "Today I hit some long drivers. I didn't hit so many fairways, but I cut some corners, so some short clubs helped me. The short game was really good, and also, the iron play. I start really good and made some good putts the first holes. So give me good confidence for the rest of the day, and I keep making putts."
Shaun Norris (64) – "Hit the ball nicely. Gave myself a couple of chances. Didn't fall the first couple of holes but I told my brother, I feel like I'm hitting the lines and starting to feel the greens. As soon as I made the putt on 8, and then 9, just started feeling like it's snowballing. I started hitting better shot close to the holes. Really giving myself super opportunities after that."
Brooks Koepka (66) – "I played really solid. Controlled distances. Controlled flights. Controlled spin. Everything that's exactly what you want to do. Felt good to be back out playing, just feeling the competition again. I'm pretty pleased with it. I've kind of known I've been hitting it really well, putting it really well for a couple weeks. I think the first day I picked up the club, same thing. Felt like I hadn't left. I've done it for years and years. You don't forget how to swing the golf club." And the knee? " It feels fine. It was a little sore last night. 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. It's a little tired."
Jason Scrivener (66) – "It was pretty much stress-free. I played nicely the whole day. Wind picked up a little bit but not much. It was still perfect conditions out there. I knew it was playing as easy as it's going to play, so wanted to take advantage of it. Nice way to start. I love it here. It's perfect, great conditions and great golf course."
Sergio Garcia (67) – "It was a very solid day. Obviously I would love to par the last but unfortunately that didn't happen. Other than that, I felt like I played pretty solid. Hit a good amount of shots, good, solid shots, a couple here and there that I didn't quite commit as well as I should have. But other than that, you know, putted nicely. Chipped quite nicely other than the bad bounce on the last but it was a good day."
Road to victory at Abu Dhabi GC
2019 – Shane Lowry R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2018 – Tommy Fleetwood R1: 1st, R2: 3rd, R3: 4th
2017 – Tommy Fleetwood R1: 6th, R2: 3rd, R3: 2nd
2016 – Rickie Fowler R1: 29th, R2: 11th, R3: 1st
2015 – Gary Stal R1: 14th, R2: 8th, R3: 5th
Notes: In six of the last nine years, including each of the last three, the eventual winner was never outside the top six at the end of any round. It's a good course for frontrunners but there are exceptions. Rickie Fowler was six back after day one while 2007 champion Paul Casey was T43 and eight off the pace before storming through to win.
Fate of the first-round leaders at Abu Dhabi GC – where did they finish?
Notes: A first-round leader has gone on to win four times in the event's 14-year-history which is a decent strike-rate. That includes the last two winners and also Jamie Donaldson in 2013 and Martin Kaymer in 2008. A further three have finished runner-up.
Focus on – Brooks Koepka, practice and the future
Well, he is ranked 1st in the OWGR but coming back after three months off with a 66 is still pretty impressive. While giving a short-term assessment of his knee in today's press conference, Koepka also offered up an interesting longer-term outlook when asked about his practice regime. "I'm excited and it will be nice to be able to practice again. I haven't been able to practice; last year, I just couldn't practice. It was too painful and wasn't being able to do the things I wanted to do. I told my team in the last year, I was just going to really rededicate myself for the next five, six years, and we'll see where we are. From there, you know, who knows, other things might be a priority." A couple of takeways... imagine what he might do in the majors when he can actually get in some proper practice! Also, does this confirm the belief that Koepka isn't in love with golf? And, if so, will he go hard until the middle of the decade before walking away?
Focus on – The American Express
Heading to California, we saw birdies and eagles fly off the shelf today at PGA WEST and La Quinta Country Club. It was Zac Blair (La Quinta) and Grayson Murray (Stadium Course) who led the way with rounds of 8-under 64. They may be tied on the leaderboard but Murray has a slight edge since he played the tougher course on day one.
To round out the top five, there were three other golfers with two of them pegging it at La Quinta and the other at the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Overall, Six of the top 13 started their week at the Nicklaus Tournament Course, four of the top 13 were playing the Stadium Course at PGA WEST, and the other three were playing La Quinta CC. It's surprising to see the La Quinta number so low since it had a good chunk of the "big names" playing there today.
Here is a look at the R1 scoring averages by course:
Stadium Course at PGA WEST: 70.53 (-1.47 RTP)
Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA WEST: 69.29 (-2.71 RTP)
La Quinta Country Club: 69.58 (-2.42 RTP)