ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Henrik Stenson had just chipped in from 30 yards for a fourth birdie in his first five holes of 2017 when he turned to his caddie and delivered another example of his renowned dry humor.
”Must be all that short-game practice I didn’t do,” the No. 2-ranked Swede said, deadpan as ever.
The British Open champion spent more time on the ski slopes in Utah than hitting golf balls during his short offseason, not that it showed at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday.
With eight birdies in a bogey-free and trouble-free opening round, Stenson shot an 8-under 64 to take a two-stroke lead in his first tournament of the year. Three-time Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer was tied for second after a 66 on a course he thrives on, along with Oliver Fisher, Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Marc Warren after a calm and warm day in the gulf emirate.
Stenson will do well to top 2016 – he lifted the claret jug to end his quest for a first major title and finished the season as Europe’s No. 1 – and he prepared for the new year by mostly ditching his clubs and getting away from the golf course over the holidays.
Even his build-up to the Abu Dhabi event wasn’t ideal, with two overnight flights in three days from his home in Orlando interrupted by his attendance at an awards ceremony in Stockholm where he beat Zlatan Ibrahimovic, among others, to win Male Sports Athlete of the Year at the Swedish Sports Awards.
All Stenson needed was a few buckets of balls and some good putting sessions to get him back on track. Playing in an early-morning group with two more current major champions in Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett, Stenson birdied his first hole – No. 10 – and completed his hot early streak with a chip-in at No. 14 after leaving his approach five yards short of the green.
He curled in a birdie putt from 15 feet on No. 17 and tapped in at the par-5 18th to pick up another shot, before making birdie on two of his last three holes to end a round in which his ball was never in danger.
”Didn’t do much practice before I left but the practice I did do was pretty good,” Stenson said. ”I was quite amazed how good the game felt coming into today. But again, I feel like I scored better than I played.”
Stenson clearly likes this part of the world. The Abu Dhabi Championship is the only title he hasn’t won in the ”Gulf Swing,” a run of three early-year tournaments that also comprises the Qatar Masters and the Dubai Desert Classic. Stenson has also twice won the season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai, where he used to live.
It was Stenson’s second best round at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, only bettered by his course-record 62 in 2006 when he was runner-up to Chris DiMarco. It is a long course that suits Stenson’s eye, and the same could be said of Kaymer.
The two-time major winner from Germany mixed eight birdies – three coming on his final three holes – with two bogeys for his 66, his latest low score at an event where he has exceled over the past decade. He won in 2008, ’10 and ’11, and should have won in 2015, only to throw away a 10-shot lead with 13 holes to play on the final day.
”The golf course, for me, doesn’t feel like I need to do a lot of special things in order to play well because I usually putt well on those greens,” Kaymer said. ”Doesn’t feel like a hard-working day.”
Johnson, the U.S. Open champion and – at No. 3 – the highest-ranked player in a strong field after Rory McIlroy’s withdrawal on Monday, shot 72 in his first appearance in Abu Dhabi. Defending champion Rickie Fowler also was at even par.
No player in the afternoon wave got within two shots of Stenson, with Rafa Cabrera Bello, Tommy Fleetwood and Julien Quesne the best of the later finishers with 67s.
Former top-ranked player Lee Westwood had his girlfriend, Helen, on the bag after his long-time caddie, Billy Foster, dropped out following the death of his father on Saturday. Westwood took responsibility for yardage of his shots and reading the greens, and shot a 68.