Rory McIlroy started his pivotal 2021 season in spectacular style in the desert, an eight-under 64 taking him into an early lead in the Abu Dhabi Championship.
The 31-year-old former World No 1 had never done better than his bogey-free round after the start was delayed by nearly three hours due to fog. With the greens more receptive than is normal, scoring was predictably easy for most of the first wave of the field.
Play was finally suspended at 6pm local time, with the final groups of the second wave having reached their seventh holes.
McIlroy’s 64 was best of the day by a shot over Ryder Cup colleague Tyrrell Hatton. Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti in third, and the former Amateur champion Romain Langasque of France a further shot back in fourth.
For McIlroy, it was “a lovely way to start the year” and confirmation of what he felt before his difficult 2020 season ended at the Masters.
‘I sort of found something’
Rory McIlroy, an empty range and Top Tracer.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 20, 2021
“It actually started at the end of the summer,” he said, referring to his slow start after lockdown. “One of the first breakthroughs I made was at the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields. I played well there and felt like I sort of found something.
“Next week, our daughter was born and I went to the Tour Championship and ended up playing pretty well. Played pretty well at the US Open with a couple of not-so-great rounds, and then played okay at the Masters, just apart from a bad nine holes.
“So it was getting better as the year went on, and honestly it was sort of disappointing that it finished when it did because I felt like I was getting right back into it.
‘I feel as sharp as I’ve ever done coming into a season’
“I didn’t really take much time off after Augusta. Sat at home for maybe three or four days and was `I just need to get out there and sort of keep this going’.
“So I played quite a bit over the Christmas break and practiced. I feel as sharp as I’ve ever done coming into the start of the season. It’s paid off early.”
McIlroy felt his strengths were his driving – no change there. But he said he’d putted as well on the Abu Dhabi GC greens as he’s done in his many visits.
Rory's first round of 2021 ✍️
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 21, 2021
“I’ve shot some really good scores here but I held some really good ones today,” he added. “And I’ve always struggled to read (the greens) here, but I got my eye in early and kept going.”
Reunited with long-time coach
Rory also feels reuniting with his long-time coach Michael Bannon after a long spell has also helped him.
“I haven’t been able to see Michael that much over the last few months because of Covid,” he said. “I actually took advantage of being in Vegas and seeing Butch (Harmon), just as a reference.”
“But Michael is here this week and he worked with me the week before Christmas. Michael knows my swing better than anyone knows it, inside out.
“It’s great to have him here and that things are sort of slowly getting back to normal. I’ll be able to see him more regularly. I think that will really help.”
Hatton made his return to the European Tour after making his way up the world rankings when based in the US last year. He opened his 2021 campaign with an eagle three.
‘That wasn’t ideal’
“It’s not often you’re hitting 3-wood to five feet, a nice one to start the day,” he said, admitting he “got away” with an otherwise slow start.
“In ten holes, I hit one fairway, so that wasn’t ideal,” he said. “The wind certainly picked up as the round went on. The guys going out this afternoon, it’s going to be a lot tougher for them.
“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.”
Gallacher leads Scottish challenge
Scotland’s challenge in the morning wave was led by Stephen Gallacher with three-under 69. He repaired a bogey, double-bogey start to the back nine with three birdies in the last six holes.
Top ranked Scot Robert MacIntyre doubled the short 12th (his third hole) but rescued a 72 with a birdie at his penultimate hole.
David Drysdale came in with a one-over 73, while Richie Ramsay had a 74. In the second wave, Grant Forrest had moved to two-under after six before play was halted.
Perthshire’s Calum Hill, the last man into the field, was lying at one-over at the turn when light faded.