Rory McIlroy happy with his opening 69 in Abu Dhabi
PATIENCE paid dividends for Rory McIlroy as he enjoyed a highly promising competitive comeback in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where defending champion Tommy Fleetwood shared the lead after day one.
McIlroy has a remarkable record in Abu Dhabi, with four second-place finishes, two thirds and a fifth in his last eight starts, but missed last year's event with the rib injury which disrupted his entire season.
The four-time major winner called an early end to his winless campaign, just the second of his professional career, in October, but reaped the rewards of some hard work over the winter with an opening three-under par 69.
Playing partner and European number one Fleetwood carded a flawless 66 to share the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara, with the final member of the marquee group, world number one Dustin Johnson, struggling to a 72.
Starting from the 10th at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy opened with 11 straight pars and could be forgiven for growing increasingly frustrated, especially after three-putting the par-five 18th for par.
However, the 28-year-old finally got into red figures by holing from 12 feet on the third and followed that with a tap-in birdie on the par-three seventh and another gain on the par-five eighth.
"I was excited to get going," McIlroy told Sky Sports. "The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I'm nearly the most prepared for a season that I've ever been, but it was nice to get back out there and it was a great pairing to start off with.
"Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coat-tails for most of the round, so really pleased; bogey-free 69 I can't really complain.
"I started off with 11 pars and it could have been a lot better than that so I tried to stay as patient as possible. When it's the first day back it's easier to stay patient so I was just trying my best and trying to hit a good shot every time I could, trying to hit good putts even if they weren't going in.
"I was proud of myself the way I hung in there. "
Fleetwood, whose victory 12 months ago set him on the way to winning the Race to Dubai, carded six birdies and hit all 18 greens in regulation, while Johnson mixed four birdies with four bogeys in an inconsistent display.
"(It was) Very stress-free," Fleetwood said. "I played really well from start to finish and felt I did what you need to do round this golf course, which is drive it well. You can't be too greedy a lot of the time and my pace putting was really good.
"Just a really good ball-striking round and nice to start the year off like that."
Fleetwood was joined at the top of the leaderboard late in the day by Tanihara, with Ross Fisher, Thomas Pieters, Sam Brazel, Fabrizio Zanotti and Bernd Wiesberger all on five-under.
Scotland's Richie Ramsay and Stephen Gallacher were part of a large group on four-under which also included Matt Fitzpatrick and Andrew Johnston.
Collated first round scores in the European Tour Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Abu Dhabi GC, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
(Gbr & Irl unless stated, par 72):
(a) denotes amateurs)
66 Tommy Fleetwood, Hideto Tanihara (Jpn)
67 Ross Fisher, Fabrizio Zanotti (Par), Sam Brazel (Aus), Bernd Wiesberger (Aut), Thomas Pieters (Bel)
68 Andrew Johnston, Richie Ramsay, Mikko Ilonen (Fin), Carlos Pigem (Spa), Oliver Fisher, Stephen Gallacher, Paul Dunne, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Richard Sterne (Rsa)
69 Joost Luiten (Ned), Alexander Bjork (Swe), Jorge Campillo (Spa), Brandon Stone (Rsa), Joakim Lagergren (Swe), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Jason Scrivener (Aus), Alexander Levy (Fra), Rory McIlroy, Dean Burmester (Rsa), Kristoffer Broberg (Swe), Nicolas Colsaerts (Bel), Chris Paisley, Lee Slattery, Trevor Immelman (Rsa), Romain Wattel (Fra), Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Tyrrell Hatton, Dylan Frittelli (Rsa), Scott Vincent (Zim)
70 Thomas Aiken (Rsa), Lasse Jensen (Den), Matteo Manassero (Ita), Peter Hanson (Swe), Adrian Otaegui (Spa), Thomas Detry (Bel), Gregory Havret (Fra), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Graeme McDowell, Daniel Im (USA), Paul Waring, Ryan Fox (Nzl), Ashley Chesters, Alvaro Quiros (Spa), Andy Sullivan, Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha), Paul Casey, Nino Bertasio (Ita)
71 Matt Wallace, Mike Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Ashun Wu (Chn), Pablo Larrazabal (Spa), Robert Karlsson (Swe), Shubhankar Sharma (Ind), Scott Hend (Aus), Justin Rose, Chris Hanson, Jeunghun Wang (Kor), David Lipsky (USA), Alejandro Canizares (Spa), Gregory Bourdy (Fra)
72 Ricardo Gouveia (Por), Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Branden Grace (Rsa), Anthony Wall, Eddie Pepperell, Austin Connelly (Can), Benjamin Hebert (Fra), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Lucas Bjerregaard (Den), Daniel Brooks, Haydn Porteous (Rsa), David Horsey, Matt Kuchar (USA), Gary Stal (Fra), George Coetzee (Rsa), Raphael Jacquelin (Fra), Dustin Johnson (USA), David Drysdale, Andres Romero (Arg), Jordan Smith
73 Maximilian Kieffer (Ger), Callum Shinkwin, Mikko Korhonen (Fin), Zander Lombard (Rsa), Darren Fichardt (Rsa), Thongchai Jaidee (Tha), Jason Norris (Aus), Haotong Li (Chn), Seung-su Han (Kor), Marc Warren, Thomas Bjorn (Den), Jamie Donaldson, Wade Ormsby (Aus)
74 Richard Bland, Chris Wood, Dan Kirkwood (a), Tom Buchanan, Matthew Southgate, Graeme Storm, Robert Rock, Paul Lawrie, Bryson DeChambeau (USA), Nacho Elvira (Spa), Edoardo Molinari (Ita), Soomin Lee (Kor), Lee Westwood
75 Marcel Siem (Ger), Ian Poulter, Scott Jamieson, James Morrison, Jacques Kruyswijk (Rsa)
76 Ernie Els (Rsa), Andrew Dodt (Aus), Renato Paratore (Ita)
77 Phachara Khongwatmai (Tha), Matthieu Pavon (Fra)
78 Jose-Maria Olazabal (Spa)
86 Ahmed Al Musharrekh (UAE)