Fisher feels the thrill of outplaying the Tiger

The closest Ross Fisher has been to Tiger Woods was when he collected his balls on the driving range at the World Match Play Championship in 1998. Until now, that is.

This morning the unassuming 26-year-old from Ascot awoke to find himself three shots clear of the world No 1 after his 65 in the first round of this Dubai Desert Classic had sent him into a joint lead with Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell. Fisher might have pinched himself; if he could only have stopped the trembling. "It's a tremendous thrill," he said, with a slightly spooked expression. "And I know it's early days, but it would be an even bigger thrill to actually be paired with him on the weekend. Just to see what he's like up close and in person."

Yesterday, was one of those days when the rivals up close to Tiger might have wondered what all the fuss was all about. The putter was not firing and although the rest of his game was fairly sharp, the resulting 68 was ominous only its proximity to the top of the leaderboard. Woods came off shaking his head, vowing to "get in some work on these fantastic greens" and glad to leave Fisher to the spotlight. His former ball-collector did not disappoint.

"I was on £5 an hour working on that range," Fisher remembered. "I was 17, was an amateur off about plus one and would work from 5.30 in the morning until 6.30 at night. It wasn't a bad pay packet, as it happened."

In golf, everything is relative and in those days Tiger, five years Fisher's senior, was on roughly £15m a year (say, £1,700 an hour). Almost a decade later, the gap is still as vast, although the only thing Fisher is collecting now is plaudits.

His story is one of the more heartwarming on the privileged fairways having come through a scholarship programme at Wentworth. A notable but hardly exceptional amateur, he stunned all, including himself, on his first season of the European Tour last year by winning more than £250,000 and comfortably keeping his card. This latest exhibition of flush striking provided evidence of the how and why. Eight birdies, one bogey; he was burning up the desert, despite his preparation having been hardly hot-weather training.

"I hadn't played too well in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago, but went to see my coach at Wentworth last week and played four times with my friends," he said. "It was awful, bitter conditions - yeah, nothing whatsoever like here - but I got loads of things done and had really good vibes coming into this week."

McDowell's route to the top slot was somewhat more conventional, coming on the back of a top-five finish in last week's Qatar Masters. Saying that, he did credit that improved showing with behaviour highly unusual to an Irishman - giving up the drink. That was just one part of McDowell "wiping the slate clean" in the new year. This includes moving back to his hometown of Portrush as well as rededicating himself to the European Tour after what, in hindsight, was a foolhardy attempt to play all over the world and "do too much to early". The initial signs are positive.

So, too, for Ernie Els whose recently-announced three-year plan to overhaul Woods at the top of the world ranking has been so well-publicised and yes, pilloried. The South African has done the impossible before and yesterday he did remind of the old Ernie again; smoothly going through the gears to post a 66. A seven-iron he holed from 167 yards for an eagle on the 12th made up for two three-putts. Easy, really.