Norman, who finished six strokes adrift of Els 12 months ago, opened up yesterday with a 64, eight under par, a score that used to stand as a course record. Els shot 68 and, although there are three days to go, the young South African remarked: "When Greg gets going anything can happen. The course is playing longer than last year and I don't think 64 will be bettered this week. That's brilliant golf."
Norman and Els went out early when there was still moisture in the air, and by the time Fred Couples and Nick Price teed off the temperature had risen to 80 degrees. Norman was not alone in casting his shadow over the Emirates course. Couples is only a stroke behind him, Price two.
When Norman arrived in Dubai last year, he suffered from an allergy. This time he came forearmed with medicine prescribed by his brother-in-law, a surgeon in Houston. What really appears to have given Norman a boost, however, is the opening earlier this month of a course, The Medallist, he has built near his home on Jupiter Island, Florida.
He and Pete Dye designed it and apart from being an extreme test for 250 members, each paying $75,000 (£48,500), its specifications are tailor-made to provide Norman with the best of most worlds. The Medallist (no green fees, no tee times, by invitation only) has a variety of grasses, fast greens, and has a touch of Australian, American (some of the holes are modelled on Augusta National) and links courses thrown in.
"I can practise virtually every shot from every conceivable situation," Norman said. "Everything except hitting out of long rough." That's ruled him out of the Open Championship then. Norman's best score on his own course, which has a daunting stroke rating, has been 68. "If I play well on it I know I'm doing the right things," he said.
It may even have a Persian Gulf influence, for Norman is an admirer of the Emirates course. "It has 15 very good holes," he said. "I like the way the greens look at you." Norman had nine birdies, perhaps the most spectacular at the ninth where he drove into a bunker from where he hit a five-iron 183 yards to the heart of the green. He had a solitary bogey, missing from three feet at the 12th.
Couples missed the half-way cut here last year and was reduced to commentating for television over the weekend. "I don't want to do that again," he said. "I'm the first to admit that I'm paid to come over here." When Couples teed off 12 months ago Els had already posted that 61; yesterday, by the time Norman finished on eight under, Couples had already moved to four under. "I couldn't have asked for anything better," he said. "I would love to win this thing."
Like Couples, Price did not have a bogey on his card. This is the first time he has played the desert course and after a tentative start he became more aggressive. "I got better and better as the round progressed," he said. His only regret was that he birdied only one of the four par fives.
Price is a neighbour of Norman's on Jupiter Island - a sort of Wentworth Estate with palm trees and alligators - and the Australian has offered the Zimbabwean membership of The Medallist. "At a reduced rate?" Price said. "Are you kidding? He sold me a plane with bad tyres." Last year Price, who bought Norman's cast-off Gulfstream jet, had a scare at Johannesburg airport when the plane blew two tyres on take-off.
Els had a punishing front nine that contained two bogeys. "Then I started hitting it nice." He had five birdies to come home in 32. Els was playing with Wayne Westner and Bernhard Langer and it was his fellow South African who provided him with a stroke of inspiration. At the seventh (184 yards) Westner had a hole in one with a six iron. The desert is an oasis for Westner. A former winner here, his ace yesterday won him a bonus of 100,000 dirhams, about £18,000.
DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC (Emirates Club) Leading first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 64 G Norman (Aus). 65 F Couples (US). 66 N Price (Zimb). 67 S Tinning (Den), R Burns, P Baker, E O'Connell, G J Brand, W Riley (Aus). 68 E Els (SA), R Chapman, C Cassells, C Montgomerie, H Clark, S Cage, N Fasth (Swe). 69 P Hedblom (Swe), P Price, K Eriksson (Swe), R Goosen (SA), P Curry, S Gimson (Sing), M Mackenzie, M Besanceney (Fr), P Walton, M Campbell (NZ), R Boxall, S Richardson, R Willison, A Cejka (Ger), N Briggs. 70 O Rojahn (Nor), M Lanner (Swe), G Orr, S Struver (Ger), B Langer (Ger), A Oldcorn, S Ames (Tri), D Curry, A Murray, M Gates, M Hallberg (Swe), A Hunter, I Garrido (Sp), D Gilford, J Hawkes (SA), P Fulke (Swe), B Lane, C Rocca (It), J Robinson, D Carter. 71 R McFarlane, M James, P Broadhurst, C Mason, A Gillner (Swe), J Spence, D Clarke, W Westner (SA), P Mitchell, S Watson, P Linhart (Sp), C Cevaer (Fr), P Moloney (Aus), I Palmer (SA), H Kase (Japan), P Eales, J van de Velde (Fr), M Davis, J Townsend (US), S McAllister, S Bottomley. 72 A Binaghi (It), M A Jimenez (Sp), P McGinley, G Levenson (SA), M Mouland, P Mayo, P Teravainen (US), M Miller, D Cooper, D Ray, J Sandelin (Swe). 73 S Nesbitt*, A Sherborne, R Claydon, J Haeggman (Swe), J Bickerton, T Levet (Fr), R Drummond, J Robson, D Westermark (Swe), D Williams, M Gronberg (Swe), M A Martin (Sp), P-U Johansson (Swe), T Watanabe (Japan), M Roe. * denotes amateurReuse content