DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Rafael Cabrera-Bello made nine birdies in his first 11 holes to finish at 9-under 63 Thursday for a two-shot lead after the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
Marcel Siem and Scott Jamieson each shot 65.
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy was three shots back, making seven birdies on the last 10 holes. He’s tied for fourth with six other players, including 2010 PGA champion Martin Kaymer.
“I didn’t really get much going on the front nine,” McIlroy said. “And then I sort of got a few things going after that.”
Cabrera-Bello said he briefly thought about scoring 59, one shot better than his career-best 60 that helped him win the Austrian Open. But he ended the round with seven straight pars.
“It felt simple. I know it’s not and I know it’s really hard to repeat,” the 119th-ranked Cabrera-Bello said. “But it felt like everything was going nice and smooth today.”
Third-ranked Lee Westwood had a 69, and defending champion Alvaro Quiros shot a 70. Robert Rock, who beat Tiger Woods and McIlroy at Abu Dhabi on Jan. 29, trails by 10 shots.
Cabrera-Bello said his consistent short game helped put him in contention for a second European Tour win and first since 2009. The 27-year-old Spaniard chipped within 3 feet on his fourth hole for birdie, then sank a 20-foot birdie putt on his fifth and made a 15-foot putt on his eighth.
Cabrera-Bello said it’s too soon to start thinking about winning the tournament.
“I don’t think anyone who plays good in any tournament in the first round thinks about winning,” Cabrera-Bello said. “I’m sure that is one thing you shouldn’t do. … You only need to think about how many times the first-round leader ends up winning, which I don’t think is a very good percentage.”
McIlroy, who won the tournament in 2009 and finished second last month at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, started with six straight pars and a bogey. He sank clutch birdie putts on No. 9 and 11 and missed a hole-in-one on the par-3, 15 by a foot.
“Once I made a couple of birdies, you feel a bit more comfortable, you get a bit of momentum and you get into a bit of a flow, and that’s what happened,” McIlroy said.
Kaymer started slowly with a birdie and bogey on the front nine but had four birdies to go with a bogey on the back. He finished off with an eagle after an impressive drive on 18.
“I think I played very well. I hit a lot of good golf shots, hit a lot of good iron shots,” Kaymer said. “I had plenty of chances today.”
Siem managed to upstage his more famous German compatriot with his 65. He made a long birdie putt on No. 2, then chipped in on No. 6 for the third of his four birdies on the front. The 223rd-ranked Siem challenged for the lead with three birdies on his last four holes. But he found the water on the 18th with his second shot and finished with a bogey.
“It was one of my best days of golf to be honest,” Siem said. “At the beginning, I didn’t hit all the fairways. But on the back nine, I hit all the fairways and my iron shots were all straight at it.”
Jamieson had five birdies and an eagle in a bogey-free 65.
A colorful pairing included Fred Couples (70), John Daly (71) and Colin Montgomerie (71). Daly had a triple bogey on the ninth after his ball landed on the lakeside shelf and he needed a drop.
Rock didn’t have much luck during his round.
“It was a pretty poor round of greens today. Hit the ball quite nice, hit some good shots but my chipping was bad,” Rock said. “Ten is a long ways back. There are a lot of people under par, so I have a lot to do.”