The agony and ecstasy of golf was never better illustrated by the conflicting fortunes of Alistair Forsyth and Ernie Els, playing together in the first round of the Dubai Classic.
Both had won tournaments on the eve of this annual duel in the desert – Forsyth in Kuala Lumpur and Els over Tiger Woods in Florida – and were subsequently paired together in the mid-day sun.
But while Els strolled over the immaculate Emirates course to an opening 69, the young Scot stumbled in the closing holes in a way that every weekend golfer can relate to.
At level par with two holes to play, he leaked his drive under a tangly desert bush. He took a penalty drop in the sandy wasteland and immediately lashed his Callaway ball into a 25-foot palm tree – and it stayed up there.
Using a pair of Rules official Tony Gray’s binoculars, he identified the ball as his – as he must do under The Rules – then took another penalty drop, directly below the spot where his original ball was lodged.
His next shot plugged in a greenside bunker, from where he splashed out and two-putted for an ugly eight on his card. A bogey at the tough closing hole (the 9th – his 18th) saw him trudging off in a state of shock, having signed for a five over par 77.
"It was very unfortunate for Alistair," said a sympathetic Els. "Into the wind that 8th hole is tough enough."
There were more surprises when the final leaderboard was posted, with Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance returning from injury to fire a four under par 68 – a shot behind the leaders, defending champion Thomas Bjorn, playing his first competitive round of the year, and Robert Karlsson.
"It certainly felt like I haven't played golf for a while," said Bjorn, who defeated Tiger Woods in an epic four-day head-to-head here 12 months ago.
"I was very nervous early on and the decisions on shots were hard to make. I holed from eight feet for par on the first, 10ft for par on the second, birdied the third and then chipped in on the fourth after a horrible shot.
"I snap-hooked my drive on the sixth and had about 250 yards to the flag. I hit a 5-wood to six feet and holed the putt. All of a sudden I'm three under without hitting a good golf shot," said Bjorn who has been practising at the course since December 28.
Torrance shares second place with Els, Swedes Olle Karlsson and Niclas Fasth, and US-based Korean Charlie Wi.
Bjorn's playing partners Ian Woosnam and Colin Montgomerie both birdied the last, but Woosnam had to settle for a 73 and Montgomerie a 71 while Padraig Harrington went one better with a 70. Darren Clarke and Nick Faldo are on level par.