Golf: Koepka stumbles and opens door for Laporta

Brooks Koepka of the US tees off during the second round.
Brooks Koepka of the US tees off during the second round.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ABU DHABI (AFP) - As Brooks Koepka stumbled, Francesco Laporta stepped up, firing five birdies on his last five holes on Friday (Jan 17) to grab the lead at the US$7 million (S$10 million) Abu Dhabi Championship.

World number one Koepka started with two birdies and then collapsed, finishing with a three-over par 75 round that included two double bogeys and ended with a bogey on the par-5 18th hole.

"I was good on the first two but other than that, it was a bit of a disaster," said Koepka, who ended the round tied 35th at 141.

"I am going to go to the range and just figure it out."

The 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia shot 69 to move into a tie for fourth, two strokes behind Laporta.

Laporta, a 29-year-old Italian, back on the European Tour after winning the 2019 Challenge Tour Order of Merit, showed he had the game to contend on the biggest stage.

He qualified for the European Tour in 2016 but lost his card. He returned after winning two Challenge Tour events late in 2019, including the season-ending Grand Final.

Back on the main tour, he missed the cut in his first two starts, but on Friday a tournament-low round of nine-under par 63 gave him a one-shot lead on top of a congested leaderboard in the first Rolex Series event of 2020.

"On the Challenge Tour, I got more opportunity to play and become better," he said after his round.

"This is my third event and I am leading. So, I just want to enjoy the weekend."

Laporta, ranked 124th in the world, had a 10-under par two-round total of 134. Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick (67) and Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello (68) were tied for second one behind.

China's Li Haotong and Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, both shot 69s to catch joint overnight leader Renato Paratore (72) of Italy at eight-under.

Defending champion Shane Lowry's campaign came to an end early when a bogey from a plugged lie in the greenside bunker on the last took him to even-par 144, one shot outside the cutline.

Laporta, who holed his second shot on the difficult par-4 fifth hole on Thursday for a rare eagle two, almost repeated the feat on the par-4 16th. That near miss came moments after he almost aced the par-3 15th.

"I played solid all 18 holes," he said. "Whenever I gave myself an opportunity, I took it. Every time I was putting for birdie, I made it. It was just a great day to play golf."

Despite tough playing conditions at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club because of the rough and tight fairways, Fitzpatrick has yet to card a bogey.

"For the first week of the year, to have no bogeys, I couldn't ask for a better start really," he said. "Just played really disciplined golf and it's worked out well so far."