Sunday 4 December 2016

'It was a masterclass' - Jordan Spieth hails brilliant Rory McIlroy after first duel of new year in Abu Dhabi

Phil Casey

Published 21/01/2016 | 09:33

Ireland's Rory McIlroy and USA's Jordan Spieth (left)
Ireland's Rory McIlroy and USA's Jordan Spieth (left)

Jordan Spieth hailed a "masterclass" from Rory McIlroy after the world number three won their first duel of the year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

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McIlroy had insisted he was not concerned about laying down a marker to Spieth after being drawn with the world number one and Rickie Fowler, but the four-time major winner certainly made an impression with an opening 66.

"It was a masterclass, the Rory that I have seen win major championships," Spieth said after a birdie on the last ensured he finished just two shots behind his playing partner and three behind clubhouse leader Henrik Stenson.

"It was very impressive today and minus one or two short putts, which is mainly just rust, it felt like he was on his A game."

McIlroy had not played since winning the DP World Tour Championship in November, but the only evidence of that rust were two three-putt bogeys, each of which he immediately followed with a brace of birdies.

"It was a great way to start the year," McIlroy said. "I felt in practice last week I was swinging well and I came back mentally fresh and excited to play again. I could not be happier.

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"I drove the ball well and that's one of the secrets around this course because if you hit it into the rough, it's difficult just to reach the green. I missed a few putts but holed a few I probably shouldn't have so it all evens out."

Spieth, who started his year by shooting 30 under par to win the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii by eight shots, admitted his driving was "short and crooked" for most of the day, but was more concerned with being warned for slow play on the penultimate hole.

"It was a bit odd," the Masters and US Open champion said. "I got a bad time on my putt on the eighth when they took us off the clock on that green and the guys behind us hadn't even reached the fairway on a par five.

"I understand that if you are being timed and you are taking longer than the allotted time, you get a bad time. I understand the rule but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense when our group had caught up."

Stenson underwent keyhole surgery on his right knee on December 9 and had been concerned about walking 18 holes, but carded eight birdies and one bogey to set the clubhouse target on seven under par.

"My expectations were not very high but it was a great start," the 39-year-old said. "I have missed the cut here the last two years so it was nice to get a good round in early.

"It was a bit of grind, more for my foot and hip than the knee, but I just have to take it easy and pace myself."

Spieth, who started his year by shooting 30 under par to win the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii by eight shots, admitted his driving was "short and crooked" for most of the day, but was more concerned with receiving a "monitoring penalty" on the penultimate hole.

"It was a bit odd," said the world number one, who will be fined £2,000 if he transgresses again. "I got a bad time on my putt on the eighth when they took us off the clock on that green and the guys behind us hadn't even reached the fairway on a par five.

"I understand that if you are being timed and you are taking longer than the allotted time, you get a bad time. I understand the rule but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense when our group had caught up."

McIlroy sympathised with Spieth and felt officials should use "common sense" as they were not out of position, but that cut little ice with European Tour chief referee John Paramor.

"Pace of play on the European Tour is measured by whether a group keeps to the starting interval between groups, rather than if they are on the same hole, as it is in America," Paramor said. "Jordan was assessed a monitoring penalty after his putt on the eighth hole, which I advised him of as he walked to the ninth tee."

DeChambeau became the fifth player after Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore to win the NCAA and US Amateur titles in the same season last year, but has also made headlines for his unique approach to the game.

The physics graduate describes himself as a "golf scientist" and has modified his irons so that they are all the length of a six iron, while he uses water and Epsom salts to establish which of his golf balls are slightly flawed (he says about four per dozen) so they can be discarded.

"It was quite incredible," DeChambeau said of his round, which contained seven birdies, an eagle and one bogey. "I had no expectations and was just able to freewheel a little bit and that allows me to do my best."

At eight under par DeChambeau led by one from Henrik Stenson, who also started with low expectations after having keyhole surgery on his right knee just six weeks ago.

''It was a bit of grind, more for my foot and hip than the knee, but I just have to take it easy and pace myself," the world number five said. "'I have missed the cut here the last two years so it was nice to get a good round in early."

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