Nicolai Højgaard produced a back-nine birdie blitz to join French duo Julien Guerrier and Matthieu Pavon at the top of the leaderboard after day one of the season-ending DP World Tour Championship.
The Ryder Cup star was one over after six holes and level par as he made the turn at Jumeirah Golf Estates but reeled off five birdies in six holes to sign for a 67 and get to five under.
Earlier, Earth Course debutant Guerrier was bogey-free in making the same score at the fifth Rolex Series of the event of the season before in-form countryman Pavon finished birdie-birdie to join him with a blemish-free effort of his own.
Another Frenchman in Antoine Rozner was a shot off the lead alongside Swede Jens Dantorp and Pole Adrian Meronk, one clear of Højgaard’s Ryder Cup teammates Tommy Fleetwood, Viktor Hovland and Robert MacIntyre and South Korea’s Tom Kim.
Dane Højgaard finished fourth over the Earth Course in his only previous appearance at this event in 2021, catapulting himself into the top 10 on that season’s final rankings.
Seven top 10s in the 2023 season helped him earn his place in the European Team that defeated the United States in Rome and he had his best result of the campaign finishing second at last week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge.
He has brought that form to Dubai and revealed his Ryder Cup experience had given him the hunger to go to the very top as he looks for a first Rolex Series win.
“Spending time with the best players in the world, fighting for a common goal was amazing, and just being around those guys, seeing what they do, what do I do different, what do I need to work on,” he said.
“It gave me a lot of confidence going into the last end of the season here. You want to play with those guys but you also want to beat them.
“I played really well today. Drove it well from hole No 1 to 18, even though it was a little bit of a circus on 18, felt really solid. I got on a run. You know there’s a few chances out there, so it’s just about keep hitting good shots and stay present and I feel I did a good job today.”
Højgaard bogeyed the 4th after finding sand off the tee but took advantage of the par-five 6th before his putter came to life on the back nine.
He holed a 25-footer from off the green at the 10th and followed it with an 18-foot putt on the next. An up-and-down on the par-five 14th was then sandwiched by putts of 16 and 20 feet as he surged up the leaderboard.
Guerrier is making his first appearance at the season-ending event after qualifying thanks to three top threes, including his best DP World Tour career finish of second at the Porsche European Open.
He left himself 14 feet at the 3rd, six feet at the 5th and holed an 18-footer at the 8th before hitting a smart approach into the 10th and making the most of the 14th.
That performance belied his debutant status and he admitted that caddie Chris Liley, a veteran of over 20 years on Tour, was a big help.
“I just tried to be really disciplined because I don’t really know this course,” said Guerrier. “My caddie has more experience on this course than me, so I just listen to him. I try to play in the zone and I did it correctly.
“It’s a really tough course. It’s very demanding from the tee because if you are in the rough, it’s really difficult to hit the greens and it’s not too firm, the greens, actually. So it’s more friendly.”
Pavon recently claimed his first DP World Tour title at the acciona Open de España and has since added two further top 20s in his last three events.
He put approaches to six feet at the 5th and 11th, took advantage of the 14th and then almost aced the 17th before holing a 40-footer on the last.
“What I’ve really released is now I know with my team, we were working on the right way,” he said. “For sure, I had a great, solid year, many top 10s but I was missing something to get my first victory and I finally got it in Madrid.
“It’s more confirmation of what we achieve with my team so far and it was nice to have it done a few weeks ago and put me in a good way mentally to play these last two tournaments of the year.”
Meronk is already a three-time winner this season and he holed his second at the 5th from 130 yards for an eagle, the highlight of a round that also contained four birdies and two bogeys.
Dantorp played his way into this event last week and he carded six birdies and two bogeys, with Rozner dropping a single shot in his 68.
Kim was the only bogey-free player in the group at three under, which sat a shot ahead of English pair Dan Bradbury and Tyrrell Hatton, Swede Alexander Björk and Dane Thorbjørn Olesen.
Rory McIlroy has already wrapped up the Race to Dubai title and he was at one under, a shot clear of playing partner and defending champion Jon Rahm.
South Africa’s Thriston Lawrence and Zander Lombard were also at one under.
– Report from DP World Tour
Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images