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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 6 March 2021

Rory McIlroy shoots superlative 64 in first round of Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Northern Irishman hailed it as the best he had putted at the National Course 'in my whole career'

Three years absent from this particular track. Two months without competitive golf. Then, just to top it off, an aggravating little three-hour delay because of dense fog.

And yet it felt as though Rory McIlroy had never been away. The world No 6 was straight back into the old routine on his first return to the capital since 2018.

After Day 1 of the 2021 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the tournament’s most recognisable figure sat atop the leaderboard following a sparkling opening round 64.

His 8-under par total was one better than Tyrrell Hatton, who had two eagles within the first nine holes of his season, to leave McIlroy feeling happy with life.

The Northern Irishman said he felt it was the best he had putted at the National Course “in my whole career”.

Although he has regular featured on the podium at this tournament in 11 visits here in the past, he has yet to win the Falcon Trophy.

“I've shot some really good scores here, but I holed some really good ones today,” McIlroy said. “I've always struggled to read them here, but I sort of got my eye in early and kept it going.

“It feels good. I actually thought that to myself after I turned 4-under. I knew 65 is the best I've shot here and I've shot it a few times, so I thought let's try to go one better on the next nine and I was able to do that.

“I maybe played slightly better on our front nine, but I holed some really nice putts coming in for birdies. It was obviously a lovely way to start the year.”

Seeing such a galactico three-ball as McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Justin Thomas playing in front of scarcely any spectators, because of Covid-19 safety restrictions, remains a jarring sight.

When McIlroy drained a long putt for birdie at the par-5 eighth – which was his 17th hole of the day – it was met with silence.

It was the sort of McIlroy magic that would have had the galleries whooping in conventional conditions.

He wasn’t the only one. For example, Matt Wallace, the Englishman who shot a 4-under 68 in his opening round, holed his pitch into the first green for eagle – unbeknownst to him.

The cup was hidden from his view behind a mound at the front of the green. Although the ball rolled into the hole, he traded his iron for his putter with his caddie, and made for the green as if there was still work to do.

The absence of a crowd gave him no clue as to the happy result of his approach, and his pleasure was thus delayed.

McIlroy’s excellence stole the limelight in the match of the day. Westwood, the defending champion, opened with a 3-under 69, while world No 3 Thomas struggled to 1-over.

Westwood is well positioned after a solid opening 18. But he acknowledged his game was not singing quite as sweetly as on his last outing, when his second-place finish at the DP World Tour Championship earned him the Race to Dubai title.

He said he felt uncomfortable over fairway woods, which cost him at a couple of par-5s. And he suffered distance envy playing alongside McIlroy and Thomas.

“Played behind them,” Westwood replied when asked if he enjoyed playing alongside his vaunted playing partners.

“I wasn't playing with them most of the day. What a shock that is. I kept hitting it 215 and 220, and that's not long enough for these lads.

“These lads are getting out 240, 250. They are nice to watch. Not only do they hit it a long way but they hit it a long way straight.

"There should be an advantage to that. They are both great drivers of the golf ball and fun to watch.”

Published: January 21, 2021 05:22 PM

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