Rory McIlroy carded his lowest-ever Abu Dhabi round to lead the opening tournament of the European Tour season; Tyrrell Hatton heads chasing pack in the Rolex Series event, with Justin Thomas nine off the pace
By Ali Stafford
Rory McIlroy made the ideal start to his bid for an elusive maiden Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship victory by setting the pace after the opening day of the new European Tour season.
The four-time major champion, who has four second-place finishes, three thirds and a fifth in his last nine appearances at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, posted eight birdies in a bogey-free 64 to move into a one-shot lead at the Rolex Series event.
McIlroy’s closest challenge comes from Ryder Cup team-mate Tyrrell Hatton, who birdied his final hole to card a blemish-free 65, while Race to Dubai champion Lee Westwood began his title defence with an opening-round 69.
After play was delayed by nearly three hours due to fog, McIlroy – beginning on the back nine alongside Westwood and world No 3 Justin Thomas – rolled in a 12-foot birdie at the par-five tenth and converted from a similar distance at the 12th.
McIlroy holed a 30-footer at the par-three15th and bounced back from missed birdie opportunities over his next two holes to make a 15-footer at the par-five 18th to reach the turn in 32.
The world No 6 picked up a shot from 10 feet at the first and made a two-putt birdie at the par-five second to get to six under, with McIlroy getting up and down from a greenside bunker to save par at the fourth before draining a 25-footer at the sixth to grab the solo lead.
McIlroy made a six-footer to save par at the seventh and added a 25-foot birdie at the eighth after being forced to lay up from a bunker on the par-five, with a two-putt par at the ninth – his final hole – closing out his career-best round in Abu Dhabi.
Hatton started his season with a six-foot eagle at the 10th and added another after an incredible approach into the par-five 18th left him a tap-in for a three, while further birdies at the second, fourth and ninth took him to seven under.
Fabrizio Zanotti sits in third ahead of Rafa Cabrera Bello and France’s Romain Langasque, who birdied three of his first four holes and made four consecutive gains around the turn on his way to a five-under 67.
Matt Wallace is in the group on four under and Westwood mixed five birdies with two bogeys to sit five off the pace after the opening day, while Thomas – the highest-ranked player of the field – struggled to a one-over 73 after bogeying three of his first five holes.
None of the afternoon starters were able to finish before darkness saw play suspended just before 6pm local time (GMT), with Justin Rose on three under with seven holes to complete when play was halted.