Gavin Green and Graeme McDowell share the first-round lead of the second annual Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers, after shooting rounds of six-under-par 64 at King Abdullah Economic City’s Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.
Malaysia’s Green, in completely contrasting conditions to McDowell, enjoyed the best of a sunny and calm morning. The 26-year-old led from the start of the tournament’s opening day, with a birdie at the first hole as part of the first group out at 7.15am. Green continued as he started to set the pace, carding eight birdies and dropping only two shots on his way to a 64 to take the early clubhouse lead.
Northern Ireland’s McDowell faced a different golf course altogether with a stiffening breeze picking up throughout the afternoon’s play. Known for grinding in tough conditions his 64 came courtesy of eight birdies and a double bogey, including four birdies in a row from the second hole, with a further three birdies to close out his round.
After the round Green said: “I hit lots of fairways, lots of greens, and putted really well. I got off to a good start, 5-under through nine and I played the hard holes well.”
Joint leader McDowell added: “I’ve had a new injection of motivation and focus since the summer last year. Got a new coach (Kevin Kirk) and he’s got me practicing better and thinking better and preparing myself better. I was playing with Phil (Mickelson) last year at Pebble Beach in the US Open and was taken aback how motivated he was and how much he wants it out here. He’s 49 trying to get better and win golf tournaments and that’s what I want. I got off to a great start which is important to do on this course and hung in well on the back nine.”
Playing partner Phil Mickelson, who made his Saudi debut, was equally as impressive throughout the blustery afternoon with a remarkable 6-under-par back-nine of 29, to shoot 66. The multi-major winner fought back from 2-over par after five holes to finish only two shots off the lead.
America’s Mickelson commented: “On the back nine, things really started to come together. Meaning I hit a lot of good shots. I started making the putts, and made a lot of birdies, and it was just a good back nine that gave me a good chance heading into tomorrow. I feel like my game is a lot sharper than I’ve been scoring, so it was nice having that back nine.”
Behind Green and McDowell, a packed leaderboard of international stars await with eleven players sitting within two shots of the leaders. Sweden’s former Open champion Henrik Stenson is third alongside fellow countryman Sebastian Soderberg, Spain’s Adri Arnaus, France’s Victor Perez and Venezuelan, Jhonattan Vegas who all took advantage of a benign morning to finish five-under-par, one behind the lead.
Stenson, playing in one of the morning’s marquee groups alongside Lee Westwood, winner two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, and defending champion Dustin Johnson, fired a 65 courtesy of six birdies and one bogey. Playing partner Johnson will be satisfied with a steady three-under-par opening round, 67, to lie in 14th position at the end of opening day.
Stenson, who – with Soderberg – missed the cut last year, said: “I certainly putted well. It was a lot of fighting and a lot of scrambling and some really good two-putts and chip shots around the greens. Probably the scorecard is a little tidier than I feel I played out there today.
“I think you’ve always got to stay patient when you’re out there playing golf, but I was just trying to be the best I could at each one of the shots out there. I guess when you have a good attitude and a good short game to rely on, you can post a nice score, even though you don’t feel you play your best.”
Local interests centred upon the three Saudi players featured amongst the world-class field, Saudi Arabia’s one and only professional Othman Almulla and amateurs Saud Alsharif and Faisal Salhab. On a challenging day for all three players it was Almulla who faired best to shoot five-over-par, 75.
After the round Almulla said: “It was an interesting day. This was actually the first time in a long time I’ve felt comfortable on the golf course. Having a nightmare last week actually put me in a much, much better position mentally to go out and perform this week. Obviously five-over par still isn’t good enough, but I can take a lot, a lot of positives from today – especially in how I struck the ball. If I can go out and continue to put myself in a position where I feel comfortable with my ball-striking, and I give myself opportunities, I think I can take another step up in my career.”
While the live golf takes centre-stage, the Saudi International’s off-course Entertainment Zone will be packed with interactive, family fun experiences, plus a delicious selection of food trucks and pop-ups over its remaining three days – ensuring that the whole weekend provides ‘The Ultimate Day Out’.
Once the sun sets, Friday’s golf will be followed by two unforgettable live concerts. Canadian singer-songwriter Bryan Adams will rock-out, after Grammy Award–winning DJ Zedd whips the crowd into a frenzy.
Flamenco favourites the Gipsy Kings and Puerto Rican music sensation Luis Fonsi – the man behind global megahit ‘Despacito’ – will all take to the stage on Saturday night.
Tickets are now on sale for the Saudi International, priced at 50 SAR per day or 160 SAR for a full tournament pass (four days). Exclusive concert tickets start at 75 SAR.