Abu Dhabi: Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood picked up from where he left off in the UAE capital, racing to the top of the leaderboard early in the $3 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship yesterday with a bogey-free round of 66.
The Englishman was later joined on the top of the leaderboard by Japan’s Hideto Tanihara, who also managed to keep the bogeys away from his six-birdie card.
Former world No.1 Rory McIlroy, playing alongside Fleetwood and top-ranked Dustin Johnson, made an excellent return to competition golf with a three-birdie round of 69. He started with 11 consecutive pars from the 10th tee, but stayed patient and found some joy coming in.
American Johnson made four birdies but also an equal number of bogeys, including one on his last hole where he pushed his tee shot into the water, for an even-par 72 start. England’s Justin Rose, the second highest ranked player in the field at No.6, was one better at 71, while No.9 Henrik Stenson finished on two-under par 70.
The 26-year-old Fleetwood, who started his 2017 winning this tournament by a shot over Johnson, then went on to secure the European Tour’s Race to Dubai title at the end of the year. And he showed no signs of cooling off with his round yesterday, which featured hitting all 18 greens in regulation.
McIlroy, playing his first competitive round since October 8 when he shut down his injury-ravaged 2017 season much earlier than scheduled, drove the ball beautifully, but was frustrated early in his round as he could not convert his birdie chances. That included a three-putt par on the par-5 18th hole, his ninth of the day after starting from the 10th tee.
Five players were tied on third place at five-under par 67, including England’s Ross Fisher, Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger, Australia’s Sam Brazel and Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti.