World No. 1 Brooks Koepka brilliantly returned from a four-month injury absence and not only to stormed into contention but also sang the praises of fellow Major winner Shane Lowry on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Koepka did not drop a shot in a sizzling six-under par 66, ending the first round of a first appearance in the UAE capital two shots behind the leading pair of Italian Renato Paratore and South African Shaun Norris.
Koepka shares third place with newly-married Aussie Jason Scrivener in the Euro 6.25m Rolex Series event in the UAE capital with the American having not competed since withdrawing from a PGA Tour event in South Korea last October and the the 29-year old has put himself very much in the frame for what could be a 15th pro career victory and an eighth outside his native America.
“I wouldn’t show up here in Abu Dhabi if I didn’t want to win,” he said.
“I enjoy travelling the world. I like seeing different cultures, experiencing different cities and touring the world.
“Most of the time we’re playing we can’t see too much of it because we are working, but if I get some time off, I like travelling the world. I guess it’s a hobby of mine.”
Koepka was clearly enjoying his first round in the company of Lowry, who is very good friends with Koepka’s Northern Ireland-born caddy Ricky Elliott from Castlerock.
Lowry and Koepka have been paired on a number of occasions in recent years but it was Koepka who many believed could have been the big threat to Lowry over the final round of last year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
Koepka was out in the penultimate final round group ahead of Lowry but at seven shots back of the Clara golfer the American was never a threat in eventually sharing fourth place.
“It’s been great to catch-up with Shane this week and it was fun out there today playing alongside him,” said Koepka.
“I have always enjoyed playing with Shane. He’s a good dude. To be able to laugh out there is quite nice. He’s pretty close with my caddie, so it is always good fun playing with him.”
It was fun start for the defending Abu Dhabi champion when Lowry, with his three-ball starting from the par-5 10th, birdied the first. However, there was no joy for him as he found the water guarding the green at the par-3 12th, walking off with a double-bogey ‘5’.
Lowry made the turn in one-under par and with two birdies and a bogey over his inward nine, the current World No. 19 began his Abu Dhabi defence with a 69, seven shots more than his course-record equalling 62 of a year ago.
“I played average enough in places but overall not too unhappy,” he said.
“I had a good start to my round ahead of that double at my third hole but overall I felt quite comfortable out there.
“It was a nice three-ball with Brooks, Tommy and myself on what was a lovely morning for golf.
“Of course, it was lot different to a year ago as I said to the lads after nine holes, I was about 20-under this time last year but then only one-under today.
“It was good also to play alongside Brooks as I know Ricky his caddy very well and we were having a good laugh out there.”
Padraig Harrington’s first event of a now 25th year on the European Tour was not one to remember with Europe’s Ryder Cup captain one-under par through 13 holes but playing his last five in five-over in a round of a four-over par 76.
“There was a fair bit of rust in my game out there today considering I have been working on my game,” he said.
“What I would say is that you look at Brooks’ score today and he seems to find the game pretty easy which is kind of the opposite to me at the moment.
“I was more impressed by the score of eight-under by Paratore as that was a good score.”