Thomas Pieters is out in front at halfway in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship but his Ryder Cup partner is lurking ominously. In his first event for more than three months, Rory McIlroy has negotiated 36 holes without a bogey and signed off in the second round by rolling in a 20-foot eagle putt.
That delighted a huge Friday crowd at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. It also put a big smile on McIlroy’s face. After rounds of 69 and 66 to sit on nine-under, the 28-year-old is just three shots behind Pieters. McIlroy is feeling confident, both about his title challenge here and the season in general.
“I didn’t know what my expectations were,” replied the Ulsterman to being asked if his performance so far had matched what he’d been looking for after taking the decision to shut down his 2017 early following the Dunhill Links last October to get himself properly prepared for this year.
“I was just coming out to play and happy to be here and happy to be on the golf course. I knew I was in good shape and I knew my game was right where it needed to be, but you never really know until you get a card in your hand.
“But the last two days have been really nice to see the body of work that I have put in over these last couple of months. It’s starting to pay off and I feel like I’m in a good position.”
He might need two more 66s to record a first title triumph in 16 months. Pieters, who struck up a successful partnership with McIlroy in the last Ryder Cup, looks in the mood to use this event to lay down a marker in the battle for spots in September’s clash with the Americans in France.
On a course that suits him well, the big-hitting Belgian backed up an opening 67 with a 65 in the morning, when there was a spate of low-scoring in marginally easier conditions.
After a 64, Spaniard Jorge Campillo is a shot behind, while defending champion Tommy Fleetwood (68), fellow Englishman Ross Fisher (67) and Frenchman Alexander Levy (65) are all one further back.
Four players alongside McIlroy on nine-under include two-time winner Paul Casey (65) on his European Tour after a self-imposed two-year exile in the US while world No 1 Dustin Johnson is also in the reckoning after a 64 lifted him to six-under.
Playing in the same group, McIlroy and Johnson fed off each other, especially on the back nine. If he’d been able to convert a string of good birdie chances, McIlroy could easily have signed for a score in the low-60s.
He had no complaints, though, and, helped by holing from 20 feet for that eagle at the 18th, the four-time major winner’s tail is definitely up heading into the weekend.
“No bogeys in 2018,” he declared with a smile. “It’s nice. I don’t think I’ve ever went bogey-free for a whole tournament and it would be nice to do that. Today was an improvement on yesterday in terms of scoring.
“I’m right in the mix after two days and feel like I’ve got a really good chance this weekend.”
After ending last season winless for the first time since 2008, McIlroy made “a couple little tweaks here and there” to his game during that break.
“It seems to have paid off,” he noted. “My wedge play is right where it needs to be. I think my iron play is good. I’m hitting the ball in the fairway which gives me chances to execute those iron shots and wedge shots. Everything’s pretty good at the minute.
What exactly were those tweaks are? “I was sort of setting it (his swing) a little too flat, a little too sort of behind me, not controlling the downswing with my lower body,” he revealed. “It was more my upper body and that was creating a two-way miss.
“I’m trying to get the lower body a little more active and trying to control the swing more with the big muscles rather than the hands, and that’s really helped.”
Fleetwood, last year’s Race to Dubai winner, marked his 27th birthday by battling to a 68 on a day when his game was a bit ragged in comparison to a bogey-free opening effort.
“It was a bit more stressful for me but I really holed out well,” said the Englishman after being presented with a birthday cake by McIlroy.
On a day when both Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar holed birdie putts at the 18th to make the cut on two-under, Johnson, who finished a shot behind Fleetwood 12 months ago, bagged eight birdies in matching halves of 32.
“It was a pretty easy 64,” declared the American, who has already recorded an eight-shot win this year in Hawaii. “I like the golf course, I’ve got a lot of confidence and just need to go out tomorrow and put up a low one again.”