Bogey-free McIlroy showing no signs of rust
The marquee group had them open-mouthed in the desert. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood were a combined 18-under for the second round of the Abu Dhabi Championship. Away from the Majors and Ryder Cup, Fridays do not get any better in golf.
The brunt of the interest falls on McIlroy as he tries to win for the first time in 16 months following his four-month break. The Co Down native has yet to card a bogey, making a mockery off all those concerns about rust.
And when he needed the grandstand finish, so he produced with his 25-footer for eagle on the 18th for a 66 to bring him within three of the pace-setting Thomas Pieters.
The Belgian showed what was possible with his morning 65, to move to 12-under, before handing over the stage to the players at the top of the billing.
From the off, Johnson, the world No 1, tore into the layout he only managed to par on Thursday, birdieing the first and going through the first eight in four-under.
McIlroy joined in, his back-to-back birdies on the 11th and 12th carrying him to four-under for the day.
And all the while, Fleetwood, celebrating his 27th birthday, impressively kept up with his Major-winning partners, negotiating his first dozen in three-under before birdieing the last two for a 68 to stand on 10-under, alongside fellow Englishman Ross Fisher and France's Alexander Levy, with only Spain's Jorge Campillo separating them from the leader.
But by then, it was McIlroy dancing in the spotlight, setting up his three on the 562-yard finale with a wonderful approach.
"That was massive," McIlroy said. "Five shots to make up over the weekend would be a lot especially with a bunched leaderboard. If I get off to a hot start tomorrow, before the leaders go off... well, all of a sudden you're one back and you're really in the tournament.
"I hit the ball very well. I drove it well. I hit most of my iron shots very well. I gave myself plenty of chances, and that's what I'm going to have to do over the next couple of days, as well, if I want to try and win this tournament."
Any doubts about McIlroy's physical well-being were dispelled with a series of thunderous drives. Defending champion Fleetwood enjoyed his special day. "However long my career is, I'll struggle to get a better three-ball," he said.
"Dustin shot the most stress-free 64 you'll ever see - and Rory the most stress-free 66. It was a bit more stressful for me but I holed out well, so I'll just kept going."
Pieters, who won a record four points and all three of his matches alongside McIlroy on his Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine, feels comfortable the Abu Dhabi heat. "We have a decent game-plan. I've done well here in the past (fourth in 2015 and second in 2016) and it suits me," he said.
Two-time winner Paul Casey, Bernd Wiesberger and Sam Brazel finished the day alongside McIlroy on nine-under par, while Justin Rose - who has recorded 10 straight top-10 finishes - birdied the last to make the cut on the mark of two-under.
Paul Dunne is still in touch with the leaders as three birdies and one bogey saw him sign for a two-under 70, which put him in a share of 21st on six-under, six behind Pieters.
Graeme McDowell fell back to level-par for the tournament after a 74 and missed the cut by two shots.
On the PGA Tour, Waterford's Seamus Power posted a bogey-free six-under-par 66 at La Quinta Country Club to lie inside the top 40 after two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge in California.
Power, who had a run of five consecutive birdies on his front nine, finished on eight-under, five shots adrift of early clubhouse leader Zach Johnson.
© Daily Telegraph, London
- Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Live, Sky Sports, 8.30am
- Career Builder Challenge, Live, Sky Sports, 9.30pm