RORY McIlroy and Rickie Fowler could not be separated on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship but both were outshone by Martin Kaymer.
McIlroy and Fowler’s rivalry escalated last year, so it was fitting that they were paired together in their first outings of 2015.
Although the American was in the ascendancy for most of the day, the world No 1 rallied with birdies at five of his final seven holes.
They both carded respectable five-under 67s to sit in a tie for eighth, although their efforts were put in the shade by three-times champion Kaymer, who tops the leaderboard three shots better off.
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Paul Lawrie was best of the Scots with a four-under 68, closely followed by Marc Warren (69) while David Drysdale and Scott Jamieson both had 70s.
McIlroy started with a birdie at the tenth, but he struggled with his driver on the front nine and dropped back to level par on the 17th just as Fowler went to two under, having also birdied the 15th.
Fowler was at one stage in a share of the lead on six under but by then McIlroy, spurred on by his playing partner, was on the charge.
Fowler then made his only bogey on the last to drop back to five under, alongside McIlroy, who admitted his game was raised by his 26-year-old friend.
“I was just trying to keep up with this guy,” he told the European Tour’s official website as he stood alongside Fowler.
“He was kicking me on, for sure. I didn’t want to let him get too far ahead of me. I just wanted to try to stay as close to him as possible and thankfully I was able to do that.”
One fantastic shot proved the springboard for McIlroy’s flourish on the back nine.
He was level par as he approached the third – his 12th – hole and a wayward tee shot, symptomatic of his round, left him on the lip of a bunker, 95 yards from the pin.
Facing the prospect of going over par, the off-balance Northern Irishman somehow managed to find the green before putting for the first of three consecutive birdies.
“It’s not a shot I would practise too much, that’s for sure,” he said.
“But from looking like you’re going to make a bogey to making a birdie, that gives you a little bit of momentum and you can go on from there and luckily I was able to make a few birdies after that.
“The result was good, 67 was pleasing. How I got there in the end wasn’t quite as pleasing. There’s a couple of things that I need to work on if I want to have a chance to win.”
Fowler, making his debut in this tournament, built on his start on the back nine with birdies at the first, fourth, fifth and seventh, but blotted his copybook with his only bogey of the day on his final hole.
Nevertheless, he was satisfied with his display in only his third event since last September’s Ryder Cup.
“I was a little shaky this morning,” he said. “I haven’t played in quite some time, so it’s nice to get things off to a consistent start and throw some birdies in there.”
The pair will be firmly in contention when they resume today, but it is McIlroy’s Ryder Cup team-mate Kaymer who is out in front.
The German was four under after his first eight holes and although he dropped a shot before the turn, he began his back nine with back-to-back birdies.
He dropped another shot at the 12th but for the second time in his round, followed up a bogey with a birdie at his next hole, before then moving joint top with his ninth birdie of the day two holes later.
There were two holes-in-one – Englishman Tom Lewis achieving the feat at the seventh and Miguel Angel Jimenez doing likewise at the 15th.
It was the eighth ace of the Spaniard’s career to move him into second on the European Tour’s all-time list, one behind Colin Montgomerie.
Lawrie made his score with three successive birdies on the back nine. “Hit it solid all day and holed a few putts on back nine,” wrote the Aberdonian on Twitter.