Rory McIlroy returned to competitive action on Thursday, bringing to an end three-and-a-half months away from the professional game.
He began slowly at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA, as was probably to be expected. Then he snapped a run of 11 straight pars with a birdie on his 12th hole, before picking up two more shots coming in.
Card complete, McIlroy signed for a blemish-free, 3-under-par 69 to conclude the morning three shots off playing partner and early leader Tommy Fleetwood. The Englishman is the current European No 1 and Abu Dhabi defending champion, no less.
All things considered, not too bad for fit-again McIlroy, then.
“First competitive round in over 100 days, so it's a little bit different,” he said. “But I did well. I stayed patient. I started off with 11 pars and could’ve been a lot better. It was nice to birdie three of the last seven and get in under 70. I was proud of myself the way I hung in there.”
McIlroy could feel well satisfied with his game, too. He missed one green in regulation, and his less-than-spectacular start found root in a comparatively cold putter.
He conceded afterwards to trying to hang onto Fleetwood’s coattails, since last year’s winner had climbed to 4-under by the 11th. But with the hard yards put in during his extended winter break, McIlroy knew things would eventually turn around.
“I was probably a little nervous on the first tee,” said the Northern Irishman, who withdrew from the event 12 months ago because of a rib injury that impacted his entire 2017 season.
“I had no problems last night or this morning. That was all fine. But 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.”
The good company he was keeping provided a pretty decent marker. Not only did McIlory have Fleetwood to gauge his game against in Thursday's marquee three-ball around the National Course, but world No 1 Dustin Johnson as well. The American, who finished second on debut last year, came into the tournament having opened his 2018 with an eight-shot victory in Hawaii. A talented trio indeed.
“It was a great pairing to go out with, with Dustin and Tommy,” McIlroy said. “Tommy had one of the best years out of anyone last year, winning the Race to Dubai and having a few wins. DJ is obviously No 1 player in the world. So to see where I'm at compared to where they are, it was nice to see that, as well. Yeah, it was a good day.”
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Others were similarly impressed.
“He plays with style and looks good,” Fleetwood said. “His swing is so powerful, but elegant at the same time. Everything he does looks right. You get certain players like that.
“I always felt everything Tiger Woods did looked right and was what you wanted a golfer to look like. That’s what Rory does.”
Typically, a fit and firing McIlroy does winning also. With Round 1 of 2018 under his belt, with the driver working and the iron play “pretty good”, a first victory in 16 months for the four-time major champion might not actually be that far off.
“My expectation coming into this week was that I could win,” said McIlroy, a four-time runner-up in Abu Dhabi.
“But 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.”