ABU DHABI, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy showed little rustiness as he returned from an extended break to shoot a six-under 66 and stay two strokes clear of playing partner and world number one Jordan Spieth in the first round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Thursday.
Four-time major winner McIlroy’s last tournament appearance was in November’s DP World Tour Championship which he won to top Europe’s money list for a third season in four and put a gloss on an injury-interrupted season.
A year earlier, McIlroy launched his bid for the U.S. Masters, the only major he has yet to win, but instead of sealing a career grand slam he saw Spieth, 22, take both the Augusta title and later the world number one ranking.
“It’s not about making statements or trying to lay down markers, it’s just about trying to play the best that I can,” McIlroy, 26, told reporters after a sizzling first round that opened with successive birdies.
“I felt in practice last week in Dubai I was swinging well. I keep saying there’s no reason why I can’t bring that confidence from the range and practice rounds into the real thing. Today I was able to do that.”
Sixth-ranked Rickie Fowler completed an awesome playing trio that drew a crowd of more than 200 despite their near-dawn start.
There was little interaction between the players on their front nine, but they seemed more relaxed as the round grew on. Spieth and McIlroy, winners of four of the past six majors, amiably chatted as they walked the later fairways.
McIlroy’s early charge was briefly halted by a bogey on his fourth, but he responded with birdies at five and six to reach the turn on three under.
Spieth was a stroke adrift after picking up shots at his sixth and ninth holes.
McIlroy stretched his lead over Spieth with birdies at 10 and 12, the American sinking three birdies and two birdies in an erratic six holes, but the Northern Irishman then lipped out a 30-foot putt of the final green and Spieth responded with eight-foot birdie to narrow the gap. (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)