ABU DHABI: Rory McIlroy won the opening skirmish of his much anticipated battle with Jordan Spieth by two shots in his first competitive outing of the year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday (Friday in Manila).
The world No.3 from Northern Ireland posted a first round six-under par 66 to lie two shots behind American amateur Bryson DeChambeau (64) and one behind world No.5 Henrik Stenson (65).
World No.1 Spieth, who uncharacteristically missed a couple of short putts, like McIlroy also made two bogeys in his round of 68.
The American was at the receiving end of the new pace of play procedure adopted by the European Tour, and received a ‘bad monitoring time’ on the eighth hole.
World number six Rickie Fowler, the third player in the morning feature group, opened with a two-under par 70.
McIlroy is playing his first tournament of 2016 – after a gap of almost two months since winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November.
He showed little signs of ring rustiness as he opened with two straight birdies on the 10th and 11th holes after starting on the back nine of the golf course.
However, he dropped two shots on his first nine – on the 13th and 17th holes – both because of three-putts.
McIlroy said he was just happy with the way he played, especially his driving.
“It’s a great way to start the year. I felt in practice last week in Dubai that I was swinging well and I really came back mentally refreshed and really excited to play again,” said the five-time major champion.
“I don’t know if it’s about making a statement, but I just want to play well.
“I want to compete each and every week. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go, but I want to win every tournament I play. It’s just about trying to play the best that I can. I know if I do that, hopefully there’s a lot of wins to come.”
Spieth, who won the Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour a couple of weeks ago, needed six holes to make his first birdie, but then added six more.
The two bogeys came on the second and fifth holes, but the defending Masters and US Open champion seemed most frustrated by a missed birdie putt from four feet on the eighth hole, where he also received his time violation warning.
“It was a bit odd,” said Spieth about his warning after calling McIlroy’s round a “masterclass”.
“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.”
DeChambeau, the 22-year-old US Amateur champion often called the ‘most interesting man in golf’, was one-over after three holes, before making seven birdies and an eagle.
“It was pretty good. I had no expectations coming into today and just free wheeled it and pretty much hit every fairway and was able to make a couple putts,” said the main who plays with wedges and irons of similar shaft length.
“It’s nice to kind of be an intern as an amateur playing professional events. I’m getting used to and getting more comfortable each event.”
Stenson, who had a surgery done on his right knee in December, had said his first challenge would be to walk the 18 holes this week. But with his iron play in song, the 39-year-old Swede had absolutely no trouble throughout the day.
The world number five, who holds the course record of 62 in Abu Dhabi, closed with a bogey after failing to make an up-and-down from the bunker on the ninth hole, but that was his only blemish the whole day.