China’s Li Haotong surged to a four-way lead after the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic, with South Africa’s Louis de Jager among seven to share fifth place.
At a demanding Majlis course of Emirates Golf Club, Li made seven birdies in his five-under par 67 to share the lead with Dane Rasmus Hojgaard, England’s Andy Sullivan and American Cameron Young when play was suspended for darkness with three groups yet to complete their round.
De Jager’s round of 68 included four birdies.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy limped home with three bogeys in his last four holes to fall four shots off the pace at one-under 71.
Open champion Brian Harman faced a similar fate, the American dropping three shots in his last three holes, including a double-bogey on the difficult par-four 9th hole.
Both were tied in 27th place.
The 28-year-old Li, winner of three DP World Tour events, made the right move towards getting over his pains from a horrible 2023 when he missed 18 cuts and needed to withdraw from two other tournaments in 22 starts.
He was tied 31st in the ISPS Japan Championship and tied 71st in Korea in the only two cuts he made and was a lowly 238th on the Race to Dubai Rankings.
Li started his 2024 with a top-15 finish in the limited-field Dubai Invitational, and that boosted his confidence and validated all the hard work he put into the game during the winter break.
“I think I was having trouble mostly off the tee,” explained the 2022 BMW International Open champion.
“I’ve been working on a lot of stuff during the wintertime and to see some results like this is very pleasing.
“I felt last week that the swing changes I made finally become ingrained now. Happy to see that happen and hopefully I can maintain and improve on that.”
Li added: “It feels good to come to Dubai Desert Classic, especially after a good performance last week.
“I can’t believe it’s been six years already. I have a lot of great memories of this place and hopefully, I can continue to do some magic here.”
World No 25 Young showed no signs of tiredness after the long flight from the US and making his debut in the tournament, leapt into lead with a chipped-in eagle on the par-five 18th hole.
He was one over on the tough front nine of the golf course, but stayed patient to shoot six-under 31 on the back.
“The front nine scoring was a little bit hard to come by. There was a little bit of wind and just a couple mediocre bounces, but I feel like I played well all day,” said Young, who is yet to win on the European or PGA Tour.
“Even with the score, I played better than that. So I was really happy with the back nine. Happy that I just stayed patient throughout the front nine and kind of let it come to me late and to make those birdies and eagle on the last was tremendous.”
Sullivan is another player trying to find his way back, having dropped to 290th in the world ranking after reaching a career-high of 28 following a second-place finish in Dubai in 2016.
“Massively satisfied,” said the Englishman. “Obviously, first event of the year for me. So, you’re always a bit anxious. You never know quite how you’ve done in practice.
“But I felt like I grew into the round well. I played well at the back end of the year in South Africa, and you feel like you’re on a high. And then four weeks off and you come back and you’re like, ‘Am I still playing as good? Am I not?’.
“But I’ve gone back with working with [coach] Jamie Gough and just got back to hitting my little fades and being good at what I’m doing. I’m never going to be a bomber, so it’s about control for me and I am trying to do that again.”
© Agence France-Presse