Golf: Harrington three off the pace in Dubai

Ernie Els signalled his intention of winning back-to-back titles in the £1m Dubai Desert Classic today.

Ernie Els signalled his intention of winning back-to-back titles in the £1m Dubai Desert Classic today.

Els claimed his first victory on the USPGA Tour for more than 18 months at the weekend, holding off a final day charge from Tiger Woods to win the Genuity Championship in Florida.

The South African felt he played near flawless golf for the first three days at Doral, where he built up an eight-shot lead, and started the week as favourite to claim his second Desert Classic title at the Emirates Club.

And the 32-year-old looked like giving his backers a real run for their money after opening with a four-under-par 68 this morning.

Starting on the 10th, Els made the perfect start when his third shot to the par five stopped just shot of the pin to set up an easy birdie, and he then saved par on the next after his tee shot found a greenside bunker.

Another birdie on the par-five 13th followed and although Els dropped his first shot of the day on the 17th, he promptly birdied the par-five 18th to be out in 35, two under par.

Els had barely had time to collect the trophy on Sunday evening in Florida before jumping on a plane to travel to Dubai, but he was showing few signs of fatigue.

A fourth birdie of the day on the third hole, again a par five, moved him to three under par and his fifth of the day on the sixth completed a more than satisfactory day’s work.

The lengthened Majlis course at Emirates Golf Club was proving a good test for the 150-man field and Els found himself one shot off the lead held by playing partner Robert Karlsson who birdied the last to card a 67.

‘I felt good today,’’ said Els, who set the course record of 61 at the Emirates on his way to a six-shot victory here in 1994. ‘‘The celebrations and all that stuff was done and dusted.

‘‘It is a new week and I really just wanted to come out and play as good as I can. I like the golf course and everything and I feel like I want to play.

‘‘It’s not like I’ve got a hangover from the previous week and I’m not ready. I’m ready to play.’’

Victory on Sunday would in fact be Els’ third in a row in strokeplay tournaments, he won the Heineken Classic in Melbourne on the European Tour before playing in the World Matchplay in California a fortnight ago.

Karlsson missed the cut in his last tournament in Sydney after his preparations took a back seat following the birth of his first child, a daughter named Thea who was born on December 19.

‘‘I didn’t do much practice before Australia, I was just getting used to being a father,’’ said the 6ft 5in Swede, who lists his interests as skiing and self-development.

‘‘Maybe I should not have played and practised instead but today was good. I feel I am definitely more prepared and it was great to play with someone like Ernie.’’

Fellow Swede Niclas Fasth was alongside Els in second after also carding a 68 while Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance was a surprise name on the leaderboard from the afternoon starters.

Torrance, 48, playing his first tournament of the season but 661st on the European Tour in total, rolled in four birdies in a row from the second, and after a bogey on the sixth, picked up another birdie on the eighth to get back to four under, one off the lead.

Defending champion Thomas Bjorn was also going well, the Dane three under at the turn, but playing partners Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam were both one over.

Earlier in the day, Nick Faldo, who missed the cut in Malaysia last week after top 10 finishes in his previous three tournaments, bogeyed the last hole and had to settle for a level par 72, the same as Ulsterman Darren Clarke.

Scotland’s Alastair Forsyth, who won the Malaysian Open last week, stumbled to a five-over 77 but was left to curse more than his fair share of bad luck.

The 26-year-old Glaswegian’s approach to the par-three 11th hit the top of the flag and bounced 40 feet away back down the green, and his tee shot at the eighth lodged in the branches of a palm tree, leading to a quadruple-bogey eight.

While Padraig Harrington is three off the pace after a two under par opening round of 70.

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