Hard work over the winter pays off as former champion Li in four-way tie for the lead

McIlroy blows strong start as Rasmus Højgaard, Young and Sullivan share opening day’s honours at the HERO Dubai Desert Classic

By Nick Tarratt / Khaleej Times Guest Golf Writer

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Li Haotong of China, - AFP
Li Haotong of China, - AFP

Published: Thu 18 Jan 2024, 10:37 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 Jan 2024, 10:40 PM

China’s Haotong Li continued from where he left off on Tuesday when he won the Pro-Am to card a five-under 67 to grab a share of the lead after day one of the $9 million Hero Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis Course.

Li, who famously beat Rory McIlroy by one-shot to win the title here in 2018, shared the opening day’s honours with Denmark’s Rasmus Højgaard, American Cameron Young and England’s Andy Sullivan.

The Chinese player endured a slew of missed cuts while finishing 208th and 238th on the Race to Dubai Rankings in Partnership with Rolex in 2021 and 2023, either side of a 2022 campaign that saw him claim a third DP World Tour win in Germany.

A top 20 last week at the Dubai Invitational hinted at another renaissance from the 28-year-old who is well-armed with a new swing and new equipment.

Li commented, “I played just as solid today as last week. I worked hard over the winter and it is great to see the results showing already.

Rory McIlroy. -  Kt photo by Shihab.
Rory McIlroy. - Kt photo by Shihab.

“It also gives me confidence to return to a venue where I have won before. I cannot believe it is six years since my victory here in Dubai.”

Højgaard and Sullivan each have four DP World Tour wins as they search for a first Rolex Series triumph, while World Number 25 Young is making his debut in a DP World Tour event not co-sanctioned by the PGA TOUR.

Rasmus' twin brother Nicolai, Danes Søren Kjeldsen and Thorbjørn Olesen, South African Louis de Jager, Spaniard Sebastian Garcia, England's Richard Mansell and Dubai-based Pole Adrian Meronk were all a shot back, with 68’s, on a congested leaderboard in the UAE.

McIlroy started his quest for a record-breaking fourth title with a 71 to sit four shots off the lead, a result that must be disappointing to the World’s No. 2 golfer after he bogeyed three of his last four holes.

The hugely talented golfer from Northern Ireland must be wondering what went wrong at his favourite course having made a strong start to the tournament he previously won in 2009, 2015, and 2023.

Ryan Fox of New Zealand plays a bunker shot at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic. - AFP
Ryan Fox of New Zealand plays a bunker shot at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic. - AFP

As McILroy faltered Li played some tidy golf which included a nice pitch on the par-five third to set up a birdie when he holed from nearly 30 feet on the sixth to take the turn in 33.

An up-and-down from the sand on the par-five tenth brought another gain and when he holed two more lengthy putts on the 11th and 13th, he was guaranteed a share of the lead.

Li dropped a shot on the 15th but regained it on the 16th with another 30-footer and after a bogey on the 17th, got up and down on the par-five last to set the target.

Several players had shared top spot throughout the day only to produce late stumbles but Højgaard and Young bucked that trend with a pair of big finishes.

Brian Harman of USA plays his tee shot at the 3rd hole during the first round of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic. - AFP
Brian Harman of USA plays his tee shot at the 3rd hole during the first round of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic. - AFP

A smart approach on the first and up-and-down on the driveable par-four second got Højgaard off to a fast start and while he bogeyed the third, he almost aced the par-three seventh.

A second to ten feet set up an eagle on the tenth but bogeys on the 12th and 15th cancelled out a gain on the 13th before Højgaard drove the 17th and got up and down on the last.

"I think it was pretty good from how I played today,” he said, summing up his performance. “I think everyone could see I was a bit offline from the tee box today but I managed to scramble my way around and then obviously had an eagle on 10 and the two birdies at the end.

“So I'm very happy with the round. There was a lot of good out there as well. It's just a little feeling that I have off the tee that I need to try out now on the range, and then that might change for tomorrow.

“Yeah, I got away with a very good score today, so I'm very happy.”

Young holed a monster 39-foot putt on the seventh but made bogeys on the second and ninth to turn in 36.

The American was back into red numbers with birdies on the par-five tenth and 13th and better was to come as he left himself four feet on the 16th, got up and down on the driveable 17th and then holed a huge putt from off the green at the last for a closing eagle and a share of the lead.

“Yeah, I played really well,” Young said. “The front nine scoring was a little bit hard to come by. I think a little bit of wind and just a couple of mediocre bounces but I feel like I played well all day.

“I was really happy with the back nine, but happy just that I stayed patient throughout the front nine and kind of let it come to me late.”

Play was suspended at 5.50 pm due to darkness with three groups unable to complete their rounds. They will restart at 7.45 am tomorrow (Friday) and there will be no change to the round two tee times.

Round One Leaders

(7,428 Yards, Par 72)

Li (China) 67.

Sullivan (Eng) 67.

Young (US) 67.

Hojgaard (Den) 67.

Meronk (Pol) 68.

Mansell (Eng) 68.

Hojgaard (Den) 68.

Kjeldsen (Den) 68.

Garcia (Spain) 68.

De Jager (RSA) 68.

Oleson (Den) 68.

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