Relatively downbeat on Wednesday when previewing his title defence at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Tyrrell Hatton must have left Yas Links on Thursday sporting a rather sunnier disposition.
A bogey-free 6-under-par in the morning offered a welcome retort to the gloomy pre-event demeanour and suggested the Englishman won’t be relinquishing the Falcon Trophy without a fight.
OK, so his attempt to retain the crown takes place across the E11 from where he triumphed 12 months ago, at Abu Dhabi Golf Club – the principal reason Hatton downplayed his chances this week.
But his opening DP World Tour round of 2022 confirmed he had taken quickly to fresh surroundings. After 18 holes, he sits fourth, part of a six-player group three shots off leader Scott Jamieson. In between, Thomas Pieters lies on 7-under, with world No 6 Viktor Hovland one stroke better in second.
So, new course in the capital, similarly hot Hatton.
“I guess I am a little bit surprised,” he said. “Start of the new year, you don't really know where your game is at until you play in tournament golf. To be honest, I don't feel like I played that great. I just scored really well. Obviously, I'll take that, start of the year, 6-under, bogey-free, is great.”
It certainly made a mockery of that initial forecast. Although, in his own mind at least, Hatton did have a point.
“Everyone should really be coming into the new year with not high expectations purely because you don't know where your game is at because you haven't played tournament golf for a while,” said the world No 22, chasing a record fifth Rolex Series victory. “I don't think it's a bad thing. Sometimes it helps.
“Obviously in the middle of the season if you've got low expectations, that's probably not a good thing. But starting out, I don't see it as a negative.”
Surely, there can be positives gleaned from his different approach to pre-season. Hatton, who confessed on Wednesday he can lack motivation to practice, kept his clubs locked away for much of December following a tied-9th at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Instead of working on his game, he honed his gaming.
“I've done a bit of work this year, but I definitely needed to,” Hatton said. “I didn't touch a club for three weeks after the Bahamas, which was lovely. Enjoyed playing Xbox and not doing much else. But started this year going out to Orlando and getting back into the swing of things.”
Clearly, if Round 1 is anything to go by, the lay-off worked.
“I wish it was longer,” Hatton said. “It's not enough time, to be honest. Because obviously we [play] all the time, it's nice to just have a break and not worry about going out and practising and everything like that. So it's nice to hit the refresh button and obviously go again in the new year.”
With conditions to blow heavy around Yas Links on Friday, Hatton quipped that he wouldn’t mind some more time away from the course.
“Hopefully it's so windy we get a day off,” he said. “That would be nice. Can only hope, anyway. But yeah, it's going to be a completely different beast tomorrow. It's going to be a grind. You just have to try get through it, and at the end of the day, par is going to be a good score. Just see how you get on.”
In contrast, Rory McIlroy will be hoping on Friday for an improvement on par. The four-time major champion, out with Hatton and Lee Westwood, typically excels in Abu Dhabi, even if he is yet to win despite eight top-three finishes in his last nine starts there.
However, the Northern Irishman struggled on Thursday morning, mixing four birdies with four bogeys – he dropped three shots in his final four holes – to finish level. Elsewhere, world No 2 Collin Morikawa is one shot worse off than McIlroy, while 17-year-old, Dubai-based amateur Josh Hill is 1-under.