Thomas Pieters made to work for his one-shot lead on 'challenging' Omega Dubai Desert Classic course
Belgian cards 5-under par 67 on day when big guns such as Westwood and Fleetwood find the going tough
With a large chunk of the field wobbling in the wind, Thomas Pieters breezed initially to the top of the leaderboard.
The Belgian went out in 32, thanks to five birdies and a blemish-free outward nine on the first day of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. It was among Thursday’s very best, when the Majlis Course and Mother Nature both bore their teeth.
Only 29 of the 132 players broke par. Lee Westwood, Sunday’s celebrated champion in Abu Dhabi, finished on 6-over par. Tommy Fleetwood, the world No 10 and thus the highest-ranked player competing, was only three better off.
So Pieters racing to 5-under was pretty impressive, particularly given the fairways have tightened, and the rough toughened. He finished there, too, but not without feeling the brunt like the rest.
Pieters dropped three shots on the opening two holes as he turned for home, but bounced back with a hat-trick of successive birdies.
An afternoon 67 was enough to give him a one-shot lead ahead of David Lipsky, a rare survivor of the morning malaise. Twelve players were a stroke further back, with defending champion Bryson DeChambeau headlining a cosier group bunched on 2-under.
Quite rightly, Pieters was pleased. As the interviewer said: terrific scoring in tricky conditions.
“Yeah, it was,” the four-time European Tour winner said. “That was pretty tough with the rough being that thick; it was definitely a challenge.
“My drives and 3-woods weren't very good today, but somehow I found the greens and if I did hit a fairway, I took advantage of it. Played the par 3s very well.
“I've been working on my putting real hard, and I just hope to see some progress. I saw that today. Hopefully, we can keep it up. I know I'm hitting the ball quite nice. I'm just looking forward to the next three days.”
Like many, Pieters began his season last week in Abu Dhabi, finishing in a wholly respectable tie for 30th on a course he has traditionally performed well on.
Dubai, on the other hand, has proved slightly more difficult: his best result was tied-23rd, three years ago. Taking that into account, a strong start to his second tournament of the campaign was welcome.
“It's always a bit scary starting out,” Pieters said. “You don't know what to expect, even though you've put the work in. That competitive mind-set sometimes takes awhile to kick in. But today was one of my better rounds of the year, really.”
On the “really juicy” rough, Pieters referenced DeChambeau’s record-breaking score last year. “Maybe they don't want to see the 24-, 25-under winning the golf tournament,” he said.
Even as the day’s second-best scorer, Lipsky is only a sixth of the way to that total. The American, tied-30th in Abu Dhabi last week as well, carded a 68 that included five birdies and a single bogey.
“I was fortunate,” Lipsky said. “I was first off so the wind died down my first six, seven holes. Took advantage of those. But the rest of the round was a grind. Just trying to plot my way around the course and give myself as many putts as I could for birdie.”
Tied-6th at the Classic in 2018, he will know there’s still some way to go to sealing a third win on the European Tour. After struggling last season – he fell outside the world's top 200 – goals have been recalibrated somewhat.
“I just want to put myself in contention more often, a little bit more consistency to my game,” Lipsky said. “I worked really hard in the off-season with my swing coach and I'm seeing it play dividends right now.”
Updated: January 23, 2020 07:37 PM