Rory McIlroy impresses to set pace at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
Rory McIlroy carded a blemish-free 64 to hold a one-shot lead over Tyrrell Hatton at the European Tour's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship - watch the second round live on Friday from 8am on Sky Sports Golf
By Ali Stafford
Last Updated: 21/01/21 2:44pm
Rory McIlroy was pleased to see his off-season work pay off after setting the early pace at the European Tour's season-opening Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
McIlroy marked his first competitive start since the Masters in November by firing a bogey-free 64 at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, posting eight birdies and holing several long-range putts to move into a one-shot lead over Tyrrell Hatton.
The world No 6 is yet to celebrate success in Abu Dhabi, despite four second-place finishes and three thirds in his last nine starts, although was pleased to better his previous record-low at the Rolex Series event.
"I knew 65 is the best I have 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," McIlroy told Sky Sports.
"I maybe played slightly better on our front nine, but I holed some really nice putts coming in for birdies. It was probably the best I have putted these greens in Abu Dhabi probably in my whole career.
McIlroy leads Hatton in Abu Dhabi
Report and highlights from the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
"I've always struggled to read them here, but I sort of got my eye in early and kept me going. It was obviously a lovely way to start the year."
McIlroy is without a win since his WGC-HSBC Champions success in October 2019 and struggled for form after golf returned from the coronavirus shutdown last summer.
The Northern Irishman visited Butch Harmon ahead of the CJ Cup in October and has spent time working with long-time coach Michael Bannon since his tied-fifth finish at Augusta National, with McIlroy hoping he can spend more time with Bannon over the coming months.
"The one thing I love about Butch (Harmon) is he's worked with so many players," McIlroy added. "I haven't been able to see Michael (Bannon) that much over the last few months because of Covid and I thought I would take advantage of being in Vegas and seeing Butch.
"But Michael is here this week and he worked with me the week before Christmas, so we started to see a lot more of each other and that's been great. Michael knows my swing better than anyone and knows it, inside out.
"It's great to have him here and it's great that things are sort of slowly getting back to normal where I'll be able to see him more regularly this year, and I think that will really help.
"I didn't really take much time off after Augusta. I sat at home for maybe three or four days and was like I just need to get out there and sort of keep this going.
"Played quite a bit over the Christmas break and practised quite a bit. Felt maybe as sharp as I've ever done coming into the start of the season. It's paid off early."
Hatton opened with a six-foot eagle at the 10th and added another at the 18th after firing his approach to tap-in range, before following birdies at the second and fourth by rolling a 15-footer at the ninth.
"I'm really happy with that," Hatton said. "I think I got away with it. In 10 holes I hit one fairway, so that wasn't ideal.
"Obviously I can only play with what's in front of me and I'm happy with the job I managed to do on the end."
Watch the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship throughout the week live on Sky Sports. Live coverage continues on Friday from 8am on Sky Sports Golf.