Abu Dhabi - Martin Kaymer rekindled his fondness for the Abu Dhabi Championship by rolling in 10 birdies to shoot an 8-under 64 in the first round on Thursday, giving the German a one-stroke lead in an event he has won three times.
Living up to his tag of the "King of Abu Dhabi," Kaymer showed the form on the greens that brought him titles in the desert in 2008, 2010 and 2011 and looked energised after time away from golf over Christmas.
"I putted very well," Kaymer said. "Ten birdies? I'm not sure I have done that in my golf career."
Top-ranked Rory McIlroy and American star Rickie Fowler were also playing their first tournaments of 2015, and fed off each other's brilliant putting on their back nines to shoot 67s.
McIlroy's round was revived by a superb, improvised wedge shot from the lip of a fairway bunker on his 12th hole, setting up the first of five birdies in his last seven holes.
Hitting some balls
"I was just trying to get it on the green," McIlroy said about his impudent 95-yard shot from an awkward stance that revived memories of the late Seve Ballesteros. "From looking like going 1 over to finishing 5 under, I'm very happy."
Unheralded Belgian Thomas Pieters shot a 65 to lie alone in second place, with five players - Branden Grace, Gregory Bourdy, first-year tour player Tyrrell Hatton, Alexander Levy and Mikko Ilonen - tied for third on 6 under.
Kaymer ripped up his usual festive routine - which can involve hitting some balls on Christmas Day at his base in Arizona - and spent time at home in Germany and on the ski slopes of Italy, where he enjoyed learning a new sport.
"Life is not all about golf," Kaymer said. "It was nice to find a hobby that is challenging for me."
He won't be giving up the day job, though.
Kaymer lost form after winning the Players Championship and the US Open midway through last year, but was back to his best on what he calls his "home course" in making four birdies on the front nine and six coming in. Three birdies were from more than 18 feet.
With a second place and a sixth place to go with his three titles at the Abu Dhabi Golf Course, Kaymer is the man to beat this week - even with McIlroy around.
His first shot of 2015 was a 315-yard drive down the middle of the par-5 10th fairway and he birdied the hole for the perfect start to his attempt to win this tournament for the first time, after three runner-up finishes since 2011.
Through the green
McIlroy's short game made up for some errant drives for the rest of his front nine but the spectacular shot on No 3 proved to be a catalyst. With one foot in the face of a bunker and the other out of the hazard, he had to open the face of his wedge and dig out a shot that landed 12 feet away. It brought the biggest cheer of the day from a sparse crowd at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
"It's not a shot I practice a lot," said McIlroy, who holed from 15 feet on No 4, 10 feet on Nos 5 and 7 and eight feet on No 8 for birdies that allowed him to chase down Fowler.
The American, who lost out to McIlroy in the British Open and US PGA Championship last year, upstaged his rival by making six birdies in 11 holes starting at No 15 - his sixth hole. However, Fowler sent his approach at the last through the green, misjudged a flop shot on the way back and missed a 10-foot par putt to slip back level with McIlroy.
Second-ranked Henrik Stenson had a double-bogey on his first hole and didn't make any birdies in a 76. Justin Rose shot 73.
The scoreboard supplied by Sapa-AP:
Martin Kaymer, Germany 33-31-64
Thomas Pieters, Belgium 32-33-65
Branden Grace, South Africa 31-35-66
Gregory Bourdy, France 33-33-66
Tyrrell Hatton, England 34-32-66
Alexander Levy, France 33-33-66
Mikko Ilonen, Finland 34-32-66
Rickie Fowler, United States 34-33-67
Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland 36-31-67
Peter Uihlein, United States 33-34-67
An Byeong-hun, South Korea 34-33-67
Alex Noren, Sweden 34-33-67
Robert Karlsson, Sweden 33-34-67
Anders Hansen, Denmark 34-34-68
Nicolas Colsaerts, Belgium 33-35-68
Matthew Nixon, England 35-33-68
Gary Stal, France 32-36-68
Jeev Milkha Singh, India 35-33-68
Paul Waring, England 34-34-68
George Coetzee, South Africa 33-35-68
Morten Orum Madsen, Denmark 34-34-68
Paul Lawrie, Scotland 35-33-68
Richard Green, Australia 32-36-68
James Morrison, England 32-36-68
Charl Schwartzel, South Africa 36-35-71
Pablo Larrazabal, Spain 36-35-71
Darren Clarke, Northern Ireland 37-35-72
Justin Rose, England 33-40-73
Henrik Stenson, Sweden 38-38-76.