Rory McIlroy came out on top in his first duel of the year against Jordan Spieth today by producing what the American hailed as a “masterclass” in the opening round of the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.
Playing in the same group along with Rickie Fowler, McIlroy carved out an impressive six-under-par 66 at Abu Dhabi Golf Club to sit two shots ahead of world No 1 Spieth, who had to rely on his majestic short game to hang on to the Northern Irishman’s coat-tails.
“It was a masterclass, the Rory that I have seen win major championships,” said Spieth of the world No 3’s performance, which left him two shots behind the clubhouse leader, American amateur Bryson Dechambeau.
Making his first appearance since winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November, McIlroy was impressive in every department on a course where he’s finished runner-up four times.
The benefits from the laser eye surgery he had performed during a short close season were evident straight away as the four-time major winner read a number of birdie putts to perfection, setting the trend by rolling in a 20-footer at his opening hole.
As has been the case here in the past, the 27-year-old also drove the ball magnificently, missing only the odd fairway and thereby staying out rough so thick that it led to former Masters champion Mike Weir losing three balls in a practice round.
The only evidence of that rust were two three-putt bogeys, both of which were sloppy yet still didn’t take any gloss off an excellent day’s work. “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,” added Spieth.
McIlroy himself said it had been a “great way to start the year” but wasn’t totally surprised to come hurtling out of the blocks. “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,” he admitted.
“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 PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions in Hawaii by eight shots, described his his driving as “short and crooked” for most of the day. However, the 22-year-old was more concerned with being warned for slow play on the penultimate hole on the first day of a new “monitoring” system introduced by the European Tour.
“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.”
Big-hitting Swede Henrik Stenson, who underwent keyhole surgery early last month, had set the clubhouse target with a 65 before Dechambeau came in with his excellent effort shortly afterwards.
The 22-year-old, who played in the Walker Cup last year after winning both the US Amateur and NCAA titles, was one over after three before transforming his day with an eagle and seven birdies.
David Drysdale, with a one-under 71 in the same group as Dechambeau, was the best among the Scots after the morning session. Marc Warren carded a 74 while Paul Lawrie had to settle for a 77.