Rory McIlroy keeps good company and tidy card on return

Four-time Major winner shoots a bogey-free opening round of 69 in HSBC Championship

Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy walk on the 10th hole during round one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

As he was happy enough to admit, the company kept by Rory McIlroy for his first competitive round in 106 days was as significant as the accomplished nature of what he produced in Abu Dhabi. Finding 17 greens in regulation was key to McIlroy’s 69, which would have been better but for missed putts which can reasonably be mitigated by professional rust.

There was to be no soft return to tournament golf as McIlroy had world No 1 Dustin Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the recent European order of merit winner, as partners. McIlroy duly outscored Johnson by three and while Fleetwood – whose star continues to soar – carded 66, the four-times Major winner has been given sufficient evidence to believe he can overturn that deficit over the next 54 holes.

“My expectation coming into this week was that I could win,” McIlroy said. “I think after the first day, seeing where my game’s at and playing alongside two of the most in-form players in the world right now, I feel like I’m not that far away.

“I was probably a little nervous on the first tee. I had no problems last night or this morning, that was all fine. I was just excited to get going. It’s another season, a season that I feel like I’m as prepared for as any season I’ve started as a professional.

Rory McIlroy plays his second shot on the 18th hole during round one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

“It was a great pairing to go out with, Dustin and Tommy. Tommy had one of the best years out of anyone last year. DJ is obviously No 1 player in the world. So to see where I’m at compared to where they are, it was nice. It was a good day.”

After the injury troubles which beset McIlroy’s 2017 nobody could reasonably grudge him a few of them. The 28-year-old’s demeanour post-round on Thursday was as telling as his earlier display, with a calm McIlroy clearly believing he had afforded himself endorsement of winter progress which took place away from public glare.

“With how I played I could have shot a better score but after reeling off 11 pars in a row, I’m proud of myself to hang in there and make those three birdies in the last seven holes and get in bogey-free,” McIlroy added. “There were no mistakes, I played very solidly, very smart. It was a good round of golf. It could have been better but I’ll take it.”

The pick was a beautifully flighted six-iron into the tricky par-three seventh – McIlroy’s 16th – which finished at kick-in range. A bustling gallery had been afforded the day one moment they come for.

Fleetwood didn’t miss a green in regulation, endorsing his new-found love for a course which once made him grimace. He is, after all, the defending champion. He was later joined atop the leaderboard by Japan’s Hideto Tanihara, who also carded six birdies in a flawless round, four of those gains coming in the last seven holes.

Tommy Fleetwood has the clubhouse lead in Abu Dhabi. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty

Fleetwood, like McIlroy, relished his grouping. “I think I’m going to struggle to find a better three ball,” said the Englishman. “It doesn’t matter how long I play for. That might be the best one I get.

“It was very stress free. I played really well from start to finish. It felt like I did what you need to do well around this golf course which is drive it well, hit your irons but you can’t really be too greedy all the time.”

Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, who claimed the winning point for Europe in last weekend’s EurAsia Cup win in Kuala Lumpur, finished birdie-eagle to get within one of the leaders after a five-under 67. Playing partner Ross Fisher matched Pieters’s score, while Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti also closed birdie-eagle in his 67. Australia’s Sam Brazel and Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger complete the group in a share of third position.

Paul Dunne reeled off three birdies from the 10th hole and added in a bogey-free four-under 68 to leave him in a share of eighth position.

Graeme McDowell opened with two birdies but handed them back on the 16th and 17th holes to turn in level-par 36. He started his back nine by again slotting together two birdies and made pars for his final seven holes to card a two-under 70. – Guardian service


(Britain and Ireland unless stated, par 72)

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 (Esp), Oliver Fisher, Stephen Gallacher, Paul Dunne, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Richard Sterne (Rsa)

69 Joost Luiten (Ned), Alexander Bjork (Swe), Jorge Campillo (Esp), 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 (Esp), Thomas Detry (Bel), Gregory Havret (Fra), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Graeme McDowell, Daniel Im (USA), Paul Waring, Ryan Fox (Nzl), Ashley Chesters, Alvaro Quiros (Esp), 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 (Esp), Robert Karlsson (Swe), Shubhankar Sharma (Ind), Scott Hend (Aus), Justin Rose, Chris Hanson, Jeunghun Wang (Kor), David Lipsky (USA), Alejandro Canizares (Esp), 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 (Esp), 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 (am), Tom Buchanan, Matthew Southgate, Graeme Storm, Robert Rock, Paul Lawrie, Bryson DeChambeau (USA), Nacho Elvira (Esp), 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 (Esp)

86 Ahmed Al Musharrekh (UAE)