As the crowds follow Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy at Abu Dhabi, Justin Rose rises to top of leaderboard.
Justin Rose nearly began where he left off last year. Best of all, he did it in relative peace and quiet.
Rose ended the 2012 European Tour season with a 62 just down the road in Dubai to finish second in the DP World Tour Championship. Rose didn’t quite match the heights of that round on Thursday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, but he finished the opening round almost as satisfied.
Rose, of England, returned a 5-under-par 67 to tie Welshman Jamie Donaldson for the first-round lead. Best of all, Rose did it under the radar, far from the crowd that followed the Rory McIlroy-Tiger Woods circus.
While the bulk of the gallery trailed the headline acts in the morning, the afternoon gallery following Rose, Ernie Els and defending champion Robert Rock was much smaller by comparison. That was fine with Rose.
“I guess it’s a good thing,” Rose said about being in the other half of the draw to McIlroy and Woods, who were paired with Martin Kaymer. “I was very comfortable with my draw. I love playing with ‘Rocky.’ He’s a great lad, and Ernie is as easy as there is to play with.
“There was always going to be a lot of extra attention with whoever played with Rory or Tiger, or certainly both of them this week.”
Rose’s 67 included a chip-in birdie at the ninth hole and a huge birdie putt on the fifth green.
“That, I would say, separated me today. I holed a very long putt on the fifth green — probably 50, 60 feet — so clearly a bonus there. The bunker shot on 9 was not your standard bunker shot, either. It was very, very tough. So to make it was an extra bonus.
“If I’m completely honest, I didn’t have it completely under control today. Clearly, with a lot of crosswinds, the fairways are hard to hit, and the rough is punishing. I just tried to keep up-and-downing it and accept that there are going to be mistakes this week.”
Donaldson played in the same half of the draw as McIlroy and Woods. However, only the odd lost spectator looking for the marquee group watched the Welshman. While the stars struggled — Woods shot par 72, and McIlroy posted a 75 — Donaldson made the tough, 7,454-yard Abu Dhabi track look relatively easy.
“I played some pretty good golf out there,” Donaldson said. “It was a tough day. The wind was blowing a little. A little wind here makes the golf course very difficult.
“I hit a lot of good shots, and more often than not I was in the short stuff, which you need to do around here. The rough is very penal.”
Donaldson’s game has matured over the years. He got his first win last year when he overcame a strong field to win the Irish Open at Royal Portrush.
“I’ve been getting better every year,” he said. “The last five years, I’ve improved. I just keep working hard and find ways to improve.”
Rose is one of the poster boys this week, one of the players getting appearance money to turn up along with McIlroy, Woods, Els and Jason Dufner. No one would be surprised if Rose were in contention Sunday. He knows all about the pressure of big tournaments, and obviously likes the desert.
Whether Donaldson has improved enough to emulate fellow journeyman Rock and follow him into the winner’s circle remains to be seen. He and Rose will have to fly below the radar to win this week.