Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (SportsNetwork.com) - Rafael Cabrera-Bello fired a 5-under 67 on Thursday to grab a share of the lead at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
The two-time winner on the European Tour is joined atop the leaderboard at Abu Dhabi Golf Club by Romain Wattel and Matthew Baldwin. Wattel and Baldwin are both seeking their first career win.
"It's the first round of the year for most of us," said Cabrera-Bello. "I have not competed for the last five weeks, so even though I have been practicing and trying to recreate competition, it's not quite the same, so I'm pretty pleased."
Nelson Mandela Championship winner Dawie Van Der Walt carded a 4-under 68 to sit among a group of seven players tied for fourth place. He is joined by 2013 winner Joost Luiten, Marc Warren, Jose-Filipe Lima, George Coetzee, Craig Lee and Paul McGinley
Michael Hoey highlights a group of eight players sharing 11th place at 3-under 69, while Rory McIlroy owns a share of 19th place following his 2-under 70 in his first European Tour start of the season.
Phil Mickelson also made his season debut and shot a 1-over 73 during the first round to own a share of 63rd place with defending champion Jamie Donaldson.
Cabrera-Bello opened his round with a bogey at the first, but that would be his lone blemish of the day and he later rolled in back-to-back birdies at the fifth and sixth to move into red numbers.
After parring the next three holes, he birdied the 10th to move to 2-under.
The Spaniard added another pair of gains at the 14th and 15th before closing with a birdie at the 18th to claim the clubhouse lead.
"It is tough out there. You need to drive it good, otherwise the rough, it's very, very thick, and it's not easy to play out of," Cabrera-Bello said. "You need to be playing very good off the tee and the greens are rolling really good, so I think that you can make the putts."
Wattel recorded the first birdie of his bogey-free round at the fourth. He birdied the seventh and eighth to move to 3-under.
He would par his next five holes before snapping the streak with a birdie at the 14th.
Wattel also birdied the par-5 18th to meet Cabrera-Bello at 5-under.
Baldwin was the lone member of the leaders to start on the back nine and he quickly moved to 2-under with birdies at the 10th and 13th.
A bogey at the 16th halted his momentum, but he bounced right back with a birdie at the 18th. He stayed hot around the turn with gains at the first and second to pull within a shot of the lead.
The Englishman grabbed sole possession of first place with consecutive birdies at the fifth and sixth, but he could not hang on to the top spot and followed a pair of pars with a bogey at the ninth to finish alongside Cabrera-Bello and Wattel.
NOTES: Cabrera-Bello's last win came at the 2012 Dubai Desert Classic ... Baldwin's tie for second place at the Nelson Mandela Championship in December was his best finish on The European Tour ... Luiten collected two wins last season, at the Lyoness Open and KLM Open ... McGinley is the captain of the 2014 European Ryder Cup team.