Charl stuns Abu Dhabi field

Charl Schwartzel had his short game sorted when he won the Joburg Open last week – and when his drives started hitting the fairways in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, it was almost inevitable he would lead.

“I went out and got off to a really good start,” said Schwartzel. “I’ve been struggling with my game, with my swing, for a while. Around a golf course like this, it’s not best thing to be doing that.

“It just worked well today – a drove the ball well and gave myself lots of opportunities and converted most of my chances, just a really solid round.”

And so he did, despite a bogey on the 17th – but not after he had already racked up eight birdies, and he made a final birdie on the 18th for good measure too, to lead by one from Padraig Harrington.

Harrington had carded a faultless seven-under 65 with five birdies and an eagle, and looked pretty pleased with himself after a Christmas break which saw him tinker with his swing.

He also worked on his putting, and it showed: “The first putt of the day I was away with the fairies, but I made the most out of the round – another day that would have been 69,” he said.

“One thing showed up in the States last year. I was about 156th in every putting category, so something needed to be done,” he added.

Making the biggest impact in the afternoon, though, was Schwartzel. Four days after his successful defence of the Joburg Open and 52-under-par for his last three events, he birdied six of the first 10 holes and was only one behind Harrington.

Schwartzel wasted no time moving ahead of Harrington and was on course for something really special at eight under after 12 holes.

There were only pars to be had for him, however, until his slip at 17.

World number one Lee Westwood began his year with a solid three-under 69, with Graeme McDowell carding a 66 and Martin Kaymer a 67.

It’s a tournament where the world rankings can get quite a shake-up at the top: Kaymer can’t climb to number one with a victory, but he can climb over Tiger Woods and take the number two spot.

If that happens, it will mark the first time Europeans have ranked one and two in the world in more than 17 years. They last held the top two spots with Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer on July 18, 1993.

It’s also possible Europeans could walk away from Abu Dhabi holding three of the top four spots in the world should McDowell beat Phil Mickelson. They started the week sharing the number-four spot.

Mickelson signed for a one-under 71 in the opening round, while Open champions Louis Oosthuizen battled his way to a level-par 72.

Schwartzel is one player who wants to use the world ranking points up for grabs in Abu Dhabi to get a leg up on the rankings race: “The sky’s the limit, really,” said Schwartzel, when asked about his brilliant form. “If you really put your mind to it, to be realistic, my goal is to see if I can get in the top 10 in the world.

“I feel I’m a good enough player to be in the top 10 in the world. I don’t like to think too far ahead, sort of play with each week what it gives you.

“Weeks like this where you’ve got a strong field, if you win the right week, you can jump the world rankings quite a lot.”

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