Poulter takes the early advantage

Englishman says he did not expect to top a low-scoring opening round as Richard Bland and Keith Horne join him on the leaderboard.

The unmistakeable Ian Poulter and two of golf's less conspicuous professionals, Richard Bland and Keith Horne, led the way after a first day of the Abu Dhabi Championship during which an array of players topped the leaderboard. Poulter and his fellow Englishman Bland, along with South Africa's Horne were one shot better off at seven under par than a cluster of nine players sharing fourth position after the first of the four rounds on what was expected to be a much tougher National Course.

Lee Westwood's pre-tournament declaration that nobody would get near to his brilliant 23-under-par aggregate that captured the lucrative Dubai World Championship and with it the Race to Dubai in November, is already looking flawed. Ideal conditions made sub-par rounds a formality for most of the 126-man field and the likelihood is that tonight's halfway cut-off mark will be well into the red numbers.

Poulter, renowned in his earlier professional days for his extraordinary choice of attire, was first to snatch the clubhouse lead from the array of 66s and was elated by the way he had performed in his first competitive round of the new season. "I wasn't expecting to come out of the blocks as fast as that," he admitted. "But I'll certainly take it. I hit it lovely. I've done an awful lot of work recently and it is clearly paying off."

Bland and Horne were drawn in the last threeball of the opening day - a slot not normally allocated to potential champions but they drew inspiration from each other to post their splendid 65s - 10 shots better than their French playing partner Francois Delamontagne, who lived up to his "rabbit" billing. Bland, who has yet to win on the European Tour after turning professional in 1996 was pinching himself starting his first competitive round of the New Year with three birdies. He kept his bogey-free round going splendidly.

"I've put myself in a great position but this is a world class field and there is a long way to go," he said. Horne, 38, has three victories to his credit on his native Sunshine Tour among his six career titles and unlike most of the others in the early reckoning he arrived in Abu Dhabi with his game finely honed, having finished joint runner-up to Charl Schwartzel in last week's Joburg Open. "As I said last week I have been playing well for a long time so there is a lot of confidence there at the moment," said Horne.

"I enjoyed it thoroughly out there. The course is in amazing condition," he added, grateful that the daylight lasted just long enough for him to make a safe par at the last hole. Big names are queueing up to overtake the three leaders today. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, playing together among the afternoon starters, joined the lengthy list on 66 and will be hoping to set a testing clubhouse target when they go out early this morning. @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae

65- Ian Poulter (Britain), Richard Bland (Britain), Keith Horne (South Africa) 66- Sergio Garcia (Spain), Peter Hanson (Sweden), Stephen Dodd (Britain), Paul Lawrie (Britain), Daniel Vancsik (Argentina), Alexander Noren (Sweden), Alvaro Quiros (Spain), Rory McIlroy (Britain), Rhys Davies (Britain)

67- Rafael Echenique (Argentina), Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa), Martin Kaymer (Germany), Thomas Aiken (South Africa)

68- Mark Foster (Britain), Steve Webster (Britain), Francesco Molinari (Italy), Bradley Dredge (Britain), Todd Hamilton (US), Shiv Kapur (India), Paul Waring (Britain), Shane Lowry (Ireland)

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