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Charl Schwartzel continues hot form

South African Charl Schwartzel set about capturing back-to-back European Tour titles for the second year in succession with a pacesetting eight-under 64 in the Abu Dhabi Championship first round on Thursday.

The 36-year-old carried on where he left off at the Joburg Open on Sunday by collecting nine birdies.

Triple major champion Padraig Harrington was in second place on 65 while world number four Graeme McDowell and Swedish pair Alex Noren and Niclas Fasth were tied for third on 66.

Title holder Martin Kaymer was in a group on 67, world number one Lee Westwood carded a 69 while U.S. Masters winner Phil Mickelson could only manage a 71.

Schwartzel claimed a birdie hat-trick from the fourth hole before going one better with four in a row from the ninth.

“I drove the ball well today and gave myself lots of chances,” he told reporters.

Schwartzel is ranked 23rd in the world but said he was setting his sights much higher.

“The sky’s the limit really,” he said. “My goal is to see if I can get into the top 10.

“I feel I’m a good enough player to get in the top 10. Weeks like this, where you’ve got a strong field, you can jump the rankings quite a lot,” added Schwartzel who also won last year’s Joburg Open and Africa Open in consecutive weeks. Harrington gave himself a good chance of ending a two-and-a-half year victory drought on the European Tour.

“It is nice to go bogey-free but I’m more pleased at the 65,” said the Irishman. “I didn’t play like it was bogey-free at times but I managed my way around the golf course.

“I was very good mentally through the day. I hit the right shots at the right times and I hit a lot of particularly good shots when I had to.”

Harrington chipped in for an eagle at the eighth hole, his 17th, and recorded five birdies in his best round in four appearances at the event.

Not for the first time in his career, he said he had spent the off-season working on a number of changes to his game.

It included a bewildering range of procedures including fitting rounder grips to his clubs to get rid of a characteristic waggle he has adopted before each stroke.

“I have significantly tried to change my routine so I don’t waggle over the ball any more. If I get it right I only look up once, instead of twice,” said Harrington.

U.S. Open champion McDowell had a scare after his round but a video check cleared him of moving his ball at address.

“I was conscious I put the club down right behind the ball and it was kind of like an innocent scenario where you just feather it,” said the Briton.

“If the ball had moved off its spot of course I’m in a penalty situation but (chief referee) Andy McFee had a look at it on TV and he was happy the ball had only oscilliated.”


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