Phillip Archer is not only a headline writer’s dream, he has also proved himself extremely adept at getting the golf ball into the hole in as few shots as possible. Not many humans have come close to posting a score under 60, but the Englishman, who came within six feet of immortality at last year’s Celtic Manor Wales Open, was back in the groove on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, making birdies hand over fist to open up a three shot lead after first round 63.
The 34 year old missed the bullseye in Wales, but his fifth place finish provided Archer with the inner self belief to go on and finish a 41st on the Order of Merit last season and, at a stroke, tripling his career earnings on The European Tour.
Archer made ten birdies and one bogey in his nine under par round, which carried him three shots clear at the top of a high quality leaderboard containing fellow Englishman Nick Dougherty, Retief Goosen and a lucky-to-be-alive Henrik Stenson, who was involved in a collision with a lorry while driving to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, home of the Championship.
As birdie putt after birdie putt bolted into the hole, Archer was inwardly congratulating himself on the decision to improve that element of his game after managing to keep his card at a pinch at the end of 2005.
He booked a consultation with Dr Paul Hurrion at the latter’s “putting laboratory” near Birmingham, an establishment used by Padraig Harrington and David Howell among others, and last year improved 138 places on the putting statistics.
“It’s common sense what he tells you what to do” explained Archer, who is now one of only 12 players on The European Tour to shoot 60. “It’s got me better in terms of my weight distribution over the ball and the big thing he changed was my grip. He’s got me gripping with both palms facing each other, so my thumbs are basically the same height and it levels up my shoulders.
“I saw Paul again just before Christmas. I just go for check-ups. I don’t over-do it. He gives me some really good things to work on and I do the drills every week.” he added.
Several months on, his brush with 59 still gets Archer recognised wherever he goes. He said: “When I qualified for the US Open last year a lot of people in the crowd called me “Mr 60”. When I went to South Africa I met a few people who would hear my name and say: ‘oh, 60, I watched that!’
“I broke the course record by two shots and played great and had a six footer for a 59. I came really close to the magical score yet in the papers the next day it was as if I had done something wrong. I couldn’t get my head round that. I just tried to take the positives from it and didn’t let it affect me.”
Stenson, second behind American Chris DiMarco last year, has enjoyed a chequered history with the Abu Dhabi Championship, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, having arrived in 2006 suffering from a back injury, picking up a virus on the first day, shooting a course record 62 on the Saturday and just missing out on the title on Sunday.
“I was feeling a bit sleepy in the morning but what happened woke me up” said Stenson, who was able to joke about his lucky escape. “I missed the road as I was driving to the course and had to take a detour. Not far from here, a lorry turned right across the traffic in front of me and I had to hit the brakes and just managed to avoid going into the side of it.
“I scratched my car and ended up in the sand off the road. I got here 45 minutes before my tee time instead of an hour and 45 minutes. The guy didn’t speak English but said sorry and I had to leave the scene without waiting for the police. I didn’t have many swings on the range so 66 was a good start after everything that happened.”
An eagle three at the 18th – his ninth hole – was the highlight of the day for Goosen, who spent two and a half months in his native South Africa before embarking on his 2007 campaign at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Goosen was not fully tuned up, bemoaning his erratic ball striking but praising his more than adequate putting. He said: “I was hitting it a bit sideways, but I putted really well. I had 21 putts and that will always help your score. I had a month without any golf, apart from the odd round, and the swing doesn’t feel settled, but hopefully the rust will fall away over the weekend.”
Dougherty, who played in Archer’s group and spent most of the time in his slipstream, compiled a pretty decent score of his own. He admitted: “I didn’t expect to be three shots behind one of my playing partners after that! But Phil played awesome golf. He’s a great guy with a really solid game and you wonder where he’s been up until now. You watch him play and it’s top drawer stuff. He’s as good as any of the other guys.”
After a month in Orlando under the tutelage of David Leadbetter, Dougherty believes he is ready for a good year ahead by reverting to his old laid-back self on the golf course instead of getting too intense and self-analytical. He said: “I am going to try to stick to being more carefree and not beat myself up. It’s not that important.”
The Abu Dhabi Golf Championship – the largest sporting event in the UAE capital – continues until January 21 with some of the world’s top golfers vying for a share of the US $2 million prize fund.
Tickets for the star-studded Abu Dhabi Golf Championship are available via the official website - www.abudhabigolfchampionship.com - online at www.timeouttickets.com, via the ITP toll free hotline 800 4669 or for international clients +971 4 210 8943 and at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Tickets are priced at AED 125 for a daily pass and AED400 for a four-day pass though preferential rates of AED100 and AED300 respectively apply to UGA members. Children under 18 will be admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Car parking will be free during the Championship.
A complementary shuttle bus is available to take fans from Abu Dhabi city centre and Dubai to Abu Dhabi Golf Club. The buses depart both Abu Dhabi City Terminal and the Kempinski Hotel, Mall of the Emirates, at 8.30am, 9.30am, 10.30am, 11.30am and 12.30pm. The return from Abu Dhabi Golf Club to both destinations is at 3.00pm, 4.00pm, 5.00pm, 6.00pm and 7.00pm.
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