McIlroy roars into action to start vital season with vigour
Three birdies, no bogeys and so much promise for Rory McIlroy to take into what must be considered one of the most important seasons of his career.
The Ulsterman said he was feeling in good nick before his seasonal bow at the Abu Dhabi Championship and, with a three-under 69, he proved it.
There was no sign of the effects of the rib injury which blighted his win-less 2017 and, for that matter, there was little evidence of any rust either.
True, he could not match the six-under heroics of playing partner Tommy Fleetwood - the defending champion whose 66 was a clear statement of intent - but McIlroy did leave the third member of the marquee grouping on a beautiful morning in the desert trailing by three shots. And the fact that happened to be world No 1 Dustin Johnson only seemed to add to the encouragement.
"I'm probably the most prepared for a season that I've ever been, so that time off has been good," McIlroy said, reflecting on the near four-month break.
"It was nice to get back out there and it was a great pairing. Tommy obviously played very well and I was just trying to hang on to his coat-tails for most of the round. I'm really pleased."
Starting on the 10th, Fleetwood flew through the first nine in three-under, with McIlroy remaining on level-par.
They both came back in three-under, with McIlroy picking up birdies at the second, third and eighth.
He only missed one green and will carry plenty of confidence into his second round and will fancy his first victory in 16 months, particularly as he boasts four runner-up finishes, two thirds and a fifth in his last eight starts in Abu Dhabi.
"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," McIlroy said.
"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 for the way I hung in there. "
Paul Dunne was another who excelled in the Abu Dhabi sun, a bogey-free 68 leaving him just two off the lead and one shot clear of McIlroy. Graeme McDowell signed for a two-under 70.
Fleetwood's ball-striking was a notch up again and the world No 18 might take some overhauling at the course which triggered his extraordinary march to the Tour's Order of Merit title.
The Southport golfer continued his form at last week's EurAsia Cup in Kuala Lumpur - where Dunne was also in action - when he helped Europe beat Asia by winning all three of his games.
"It was very good, very stress-free," Fleetwood said. "I played really well from start to finish and felt like I did what you need to do well around here, which is drive it well, hit your irons, but you can't really be too greedy all the time.
"My pace putting was really good. Hitting 18 greens doesn't happen very often."
In contrast, Johnson let his round slip, playing his last seven holes in two-over. It was far from a disastrous start for the American, but, by his standards, this was an opening day to forget as he slipped into a tie for 69th.
Japan's Hideto Tanihara joined Fleetwood, with another Englishman in Ross Fisher in a group on five-under also including Belgium's Thomas Pieters and Austrian Bernd Wiesberger.
© Daily Telegraph, London
- Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Live, Sky Sports, 7.0
- Career Builder Challenge, Live, Sky Sports, 16.30