McIlroy the man to catch; Lowry undone by afternoon draw

Rory McIlroy - Getty Images

Rory McIlroy got his season off to the perfect start as the early starters enjoyed pristine scoring conditions before the wind picked up on day one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the first Rolex Series event of the 2021 Race to Dubai

McIlroy is still chasing his maiden victory at the prestigious tournament, despite a remarkable record which includes four runner-up finishes, three third place finishes, a top five and a top 15. But his opening 64 was his lowest ever round in 11 appearances at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

McIlroy carded two birdies in the opening three holes, having teed off at the par five tenth which he duly birdied, and coasted to six more in a flawless round which left him one stroke clear at the top.

“I knew 65 is the best I’ve 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 said. “Maybe played slightly better on our front nine, but I holed some really nice putts coming in for birdie s. It was obviously a lovely way to start the year.”

Leading the chasing pack was three-time Rolex Series winner Tyrrell Hatton, who signed for a seven under 65 which included a pair of eagles in his first nine holes – opening his account for the season with a three at the tenth before picking up another eagle at the ninth.

“I’m really happy with that,” said Hatton. “I think I got away with it, ten holes, I hit one fairway, so that wasn’t ideal. The wind certainly picked up as the round went on, which I think the guys going out this afternoon, it’s going to be a lot tougher for them. Obviously I can only play with what’s in front of me and I’m happy with the job I managed to do in the end. Depending on the wind direction, if you can take advantage of them, you to need to do that. Like I said I was able to do that today and hopefully I can do that over the next few days.”

Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti was a shot further back on six under, while Frenchman Romain Langasque and Rafa Cabrera-Bello of Spain shared fifth place on five under. Defending champion and reigning Race to Dubai champion Lee Westwood opened with a three under 69. European Ryder Cup Captain Padraig Harrington posted a rock-solid two-under par 70.

Morning fog meant the late starters will return to the course early on Friday to complete their opening rounds with Graeme McDowell at one-under par through 10 holes after grinding bravely as the wind swept through the desert in the afternoon.

The news wasn’t so good for Shane Lowry who made a bright start to be two-under through four holes before the wheels came off in the tough conditions. Bogeys at five and seven dropped him back to even par before trouble off the tee on nine saw Lowry card a triple-bogey seven to be out in 39. Another bogey at 11 left the Clara star at four-over when darkness fell, and with conditions expected to be tough again on Friday, it will take a might effort for Lowry to make the weekend cut.

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