McIlroy in leading pack

Defending champion Rory McIlroy shared a six-way tie for the lead after the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic.

It was a testing first day at the Emirates Golf Club but McIlroy started the defence of his only career title with a promising four-under 68 to finish alongside Alexander Noren, Charl Schwartzel, Jeev Milkha Singh, Edoardo Molinari and Stephen Dodd.

With reduced visibility caused by sand whipping across the Majlis course and thick, unforgiving rough to contend with, Schwartzel’s bogey-free effort was the pick of the day.

McIlroy opened with a stunning 64 last year – a round he rated as “the easiest 64 I’ll ever shoot” – although today’s effort was much more of a patient grind.

“It was very important to start my defence with a good score, I would have taken anything under 70 looking at the scoring and conditions,” said world number nine McIlroy.

“So to shoot 68 was very pleasing. When defending it’s nice to get off to a nice start, but there’s still a lot of golf to play.”

McIlroy reached the turn in level par after seeing a 35-foot birdie putt at the third bounce up and in off the back of the cup to cancel out a bogey on the second.

He started the back nine with a two-putt birdie at the par-five 10th before picking up a third birdie of the day at the 12th.

McIlroy rolled in another birdie from 25 feet at the par-five 17th after scrambling from a greenside bunker and ensured his share of the overnight lead with another from eight feet at the last .

“It was very tricky. It was windy, sandy and dusty and I did get off to a rough start, but I made a lucky birdie on the third to get me back to level par,” added the 20-year-old.

“I knew the front nine was playing a lot tougher than the back nine so I knew if I kept it around level par I was going okay and then I could hopefully take advantage of the par fives on the back nine. I was able to do that.

“I birdied a couple of them and had another couple of chances. Overall it was a great day’s work and I’m in good spirits.”

With only 31 of the 132-man field under par, Anders Hansen, former champion Richard Green, a fatigued Paul Casey, Alvaro Quiros and Italian amateur Matteo Manassero headed the chasing pack at three under.

Qatar Masters champion Robert Karlsson heads a group of seven two shots off the pace alongside Ross Fisher, with Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie and Abu Dhabi winner Martin Kaymer in the final contingent under par.

European number one Lee Westwood posted a level-par 72, with Open Championship runner-up Tom Watson a further shot back after an “up-and-down” 73 from the 60-year-old American.

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