Schwartzel edges Harrington on day 1

Charl Schwartzel maintained his early-season momentum on the first day of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Charl Schwartzel maintained his magnificent early-season momentum on the first day of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Just four days after retaining the Joburg Open and going to the top of the Race To Dubai standings, the World Number 23 went out and shot a 64 at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club that took him to a staggering 60 under for his last 13 rounds and put him on top of Thursday’s first round leaderboard.

And it could so easily have been even better. The slim, 26-year-old South African was eight-under after 12 holes, but bogeyed the 17th before picking up another stroke at the par five last.

Schwartzel leads by one from early clubhouse leader Padraig Harrington, who emerged brightly from a summer of discontent and a winter break that has featured a series of changes to his golf game.

And it’s all been worthwhile it seems. The changes seemed to working. Benefiting from less wind than the later starters, the Irish hero shot a fine seven under par 65 in his first event of the season.

Coming into the elite European Tour event without a victory since the 2008 US PGA Championship, Harrington went out and set the early pace – helped by the luck of the Irish on the long eighth, his 17th.

The 39-year-old’s chip for eagle hit the flag at speed and dropped in.

“It was a shock it went in at that pace,” he admitted.

Lying third after rounds of 66 were Swede Alexander Noren and US Open Champion and Ryder Cup hero Graeme McDowell who, in a spectacular run, birdied the last five holes for an inward 30.

The defending champion, Martin Kaymer, and England’s Danny Willet are a shot back on 5-under after the first round with World Number One Lee Westwood on 3-under after opening his 2011 season with a 69.

In a star-studded field including all four current Major champions, Masters Tournament winner Phil Mickelson marked his Middle East debut with a 71, which included two birdies.

Some of the adjustments Harrington has made to his swing seem to have helped him drive the ball straighter than he has for some considerable time, but that wasn’t all that he brought to Abu Dhabi.

He also has a new putting routine for the new campaign and just as important as his eagle was a closing 12-foot par putt after finding sand.

“The first putt of the day I was away with the fairies, but I made the most out of the round – another day that would have been 69,” he said.

“One thing showed up in the States last year. I was about 156th in every putting category, so something needed to be done.”

Harrington has never been one to leave any stone unturned in his quest to maximise his talent.

Westwood drove into the lake on the sixth for his only bogey, but was “delighted” overall with his round.

“It’s a course I battle with and it was nice to make that (15-foot) putt on the last – I felt I deserved to break 70,” he commented before confirming that he will not be playing the Players Championship in Florida in May because of US PGA Tour restrictions placed on him as a non-member.