Abu Dhabi Golf Championship: Renato Paratore quick to take a lead role

Italian shares top spot with Shaun Morris as World No 1 Brooks Koepka impresses

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Out not long after the sun came up on Thursday, by the time it set in Abu Dhabi Renato Paratore was still enjoying the first-round lead.

It was just that, by then, he had Shaun Norris for company.

The two players, ranked 273rd and 60th in the world respectively, carded matching 64s to open the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA at 8-under par.

It was even two better than Brooks Koepka, the current world No 1, their closest challenger alongside Australia’s Jason Scrivener.

One of the speedier players on tour, Paratore burst out of the blocks, firing four birdies in his opening six holes. He finished pretty sprightly, too, picking up shots on each of the final four. In between, a not-too-disruptive bogey on the 7th, and another birdie to open his back nine.

Tot it all up, and he concluded the day out in front, Norris there with him and Koepka and company trailing in his wake.

So Paratore, 23, was obviously pretty happy with his work.

"Today the short game was really good, and also, the iron play," said the Italian. "The last four holes, I holed some good putts to finish also on 18 and 17. So I'm pretty happy with the short game.
"I just started really well today, and really confident on the putting. Then I was just trying to keep on my mind, keep making birdie."

Last year, Paratore started the season rather slowly. He finished tied-54th in Abu Dhabi, then missed the cut in seven of his next 11 events to fall outside the top 400.

However, a tied-28th at the Scottish Open prompted an upturn in form, with Paratore finishing joint runner-up last time out, in Mauritius early last month.

“Yeah, Mauritius I played really solid from tee-to-green,” said the Italian, who has one victory on the European Tour. “It gave me some confidence, and then in the break, I worked on my short game and more on the body. This helped me.”

Norris’ game is on an upward arc, as well. The South African, 16 years Paratore’s senior, has been something of a late bloomer, a pro since 2002, ranked outside the top 100 in 2010, and still beyond No 800 six seasons ago.

But he has thrived more recently, primarily on the Japan Tour. Of his past 14 events, Norris has a win, three seconds and seven top-five finishes.

As he himself put it, he’s getting better as the years advance.

“I tease my mum and my brothers a little bit,” Norris said. “It's a fine line; I started maturing with age. I think I started to understand the game better and my capabilities and just playing to my strengths.

“It's nice to actually see the game is rising like this. Over the last four years, it's grown a lot. It's nice to be able to take it out and bring it out here.”

And now he leads a Rolex Series event on the European Tour. Even if it remains early days.

“Who wouldn't want to win this event?” Norris said. “One of the Rolex Series events to start off the year would be fantastic. I'll stick to my game plan and just see what happens and go from there.”