Tommy Fleetwood shares first-round lead in Abu Dhabi after opening 66
By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 19/01/18 2:48pm
Tommy Fleetwood made the ideal start to the defence of his Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title as Rory McIlroy made an encouraging return to action.
Fleetwood fired a faultless six-under 66 and ended the opening day in a share of the lead with Japanese veteran Hideto Tanihara, while McIlroy also kept a bogey off his card as he returned a 69 in his first competitive round since early October.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson, runner-up to Fleetwood on his Abu Dhabi debut last year, struggled for consistency in his level-par 72, while a host of Ryder Cup hopefuls were in excellent form in near-perfect conditions.
The marquee group of McIlroy, Johnson and Fleetwood were among the early starters, and the Englishman and the American birdied two of their first four holes before Johnson made the first mistake of the trio at the 14th.
Fleetwood matched Johnson's birdie at the 18th while McIlroy had to be content with nine straight pars, and the reigning Race to Dubai champion extended his lead over his playing partners with another birdie at the second.
McIlroy finally got a putt to drop for his first gain of the day at the third as Johnson stumbled with back-to-back bogeys, although he hit back at the sixth when he followed Fleetwood in for a birdie three.
Fleetwood's serene progress continued with a well-crafted four at the long eighth, where McIlroy moved to three under following a good putt on the previous green, and the European pair both closed out bogey-free rounds with a par at the ninth as Johnson dropped his fourth shot to slip six shots behind the Englishman.
The defending champion looked set to retain his clubhouse lead until the close, but he was joined by last week's EurAsia Cup opponent Tanihara late in the day when he rolled in his sixth birdie putt of his 66 at the ninth - his final hole.
Belgian powerhouse Thomas Pieters produced a superb birdie-eagle finish to post a 67 which lifted him into a share of third place with Ross Fisher, who was one of only nine players in the field to keep a bogey off his card.
Scottish pair Richie Ramsay and Stephen Gallacher opened with solid 68s along with British Masters champions Matt Fitzpatrick and Paul Dunne, while fan-favourite Andrew Johnston is also just two strokes off the pace after his five-birdie effort.
Abu Dhabi specialist Martin Kaymer is alongside McIlroy on three under in a group of 20 players that also includes Tyrrell Hatton, SA Open champion Chris Paisley and 2008 Masters winner Trevor Immelman, while Henrik Stenson (70) and Justin Rose (71) have ground to make up on day two.
But it was a disappointing day for Ian Poulter as he made only one birdie against four bogeys in a 75, while fellow veteran Lee Westwood also faces a tough task to make the cut after a similarly-erratic 74.