Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler could not be separated on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, although both were outshone by Martin Kaymer.
McIlroy and Fowler’s rivalry escalated last year so it was fitting that they were paired together yesterday, and although the American was in the ascendancy for most of the day, the world No 1 rallied with birdies at five of his final seven holes.
They both carded respectable five-under 67s to sit in a tie for eighth place, but their efforts were put in the shade by three-time champion Kaymer, who tops the leaderboard three shots better off.
McIlroy, playing in his first event of the year, started with a birdie at the 10th, but he struggled with his driver on the front nine and dropped back to level par on the 17th just as Fowler went to two under, having also birdied the 15th. Fowler was at one stage in a share of the lead on six under but by then McIlroy, spurred on by his playing partner, was on the charge.
Fowler then made his only bogey on the last to drop back to five under, alongside McIlroy, who admitted his game was raised by his 26-year-old friend.
“I was just trying to keep up with this guy,” he said as he stood alongside Fowler.
“He was kicking me on, for sure. I didn’t want to let him get too far ahead of me. I just wanted to try to stay as close to him as possible and thankfully I was able to do that.”
One fantastic shot proved the springboard for McIlroy’s flourish on the back nine.
He was level par as he approached the third – his 12th – hole and a wayward tee shot, symptomatic of his round, left him on the lip of a bunker, 95 yards from the pin.
Facing the prospect of going over par, the off-balance Northern Irishman somehow managed to find the green before putting for the first of three consecutive birdies.
Sheffield’s Danny Willett – the early Race to Dubai leader – was the best of the Yorkshire contingent, carding a two-under 70. Matt Fitzpatrick is one back after a 71 while Simon Dyson shot a 73 to sit alongside Justin Rose. Richard Finch signed for a 75.