British pair leads at Dubai Classic; Tiger three shots back

Feb 1, 2007 - 3:46 PM DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (Ticker) -- Tiger Woods identified Ernie Els as his top competition when he arrived at the Dubai Desert Classic. Perhaps Woods overlooked the British pair of Ross Fisher and Graeme McDowell.

Fisher and McDowell each fired 7-under-par 65s on Thursday and sit atop the leaderboard after the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic.

The world's top-ranked player, Woods shot a 4-under 68 and is one of eight golfers tied for 10th place.

Woods, who captured his seventh consecutive PGA Tour victory at the Buick Invitational on Sunday, made headlines Wednesday when he issued a warning to Els, the world No. 4 who last year outlined a three-year plan to surpass the American in the rankings by 2010.

"Keep improving because I am going to do the same," Woods said Wednesday. "I feel good. I certainly feel good about where I am heading with the understanding I have of my game and the swing. I just feel very excited about the future of improving and getting better."

The defending champion of this event, Woods made slow progress on the front nine, carding a bogey on the second hole before recovering a shot with a birdie on the No. 3.

After reaching the turn with a par 35, Woods sank a birdie on the 10th, bogeyed the 13th but added three more birdies to finish three shots off the lead.

"I left a lot of opportunities out there," he said. "I didn't putt well. I didn't put the ball on line with my putts. It was frustrating because the greens are really nice out there. I just have to get some work in here."

Fisher capitalized on Woods' slow start, firing eight birdies to grab a share of the lead with McDowell.

"I am just like any other guy out here," Fisher said. "You want to do your best and you turn up to win because that is what we are here to do."

Despite playing in the same tournament as Woods for the first time in his career, the 26-year-old Fisher resisted the urge to keep tabs on the world's top player.

"I just try to almost block him out because I know the media attention is going to be far superior for him than it is for me," Fisher said. "I just go about doing my own thing, try and forget what he is doing and hopefully come the end of the week, I'll have done a little better than he has."

Northern Ireland's McDowell carded five birdies and an eagle on the par-5 13th and hopes to build off his impressive start at the Emirates Gold Club.

"I am very pleased to continue the progress that I feel I have been making the last few weeks," he said. "This golf course seems to be a game of two nines really. The front nine doesn't give up a whole lot of chances."

Els carded a 6-under 66 and is one stroke off the lead, signalling his intent to capture a fourth title here by storming to the top of the leaderboard early in the day.

The South African continued the form he showed in the final round of the Commercialbank Qatar Masters on Sunday, holing four birdies and an eagle on his front nine Thursday.

Els is tied for third place with Jose Manuel Lara and Jyoti Randhawa, who both missed the cut in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship two weeks ago. Lara carded six birdies while Randhawa made eight birdies and two bogeys.

Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke are tied with Woods at 4-under 68. Westwood had a good run on the back nine, carding three birdies without dropping a shot but managed just one on the front nine.

Clarke, who failed to make the cut in Doha, overcame a bogey on No. 1 to enjoy a faultless round, adding five birdies.

Colin Montgomerie struggled through a disappointing finish, finishing with a 1-over 73.

The eight-time Order of Merit winner carded three birdies on a faultless run but was unable to carry momentum after the turn, bogeying the first - his 10th - before double-bogeying the par-4 sixth and dropping another shot on No. 9.

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