Rory McIlroy continued his tradition of starting the new year strongly as he produced his lowest ever round at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the weather-affected first day of the 2021 season. Gaganjeet Bhullar shot an even 72 with the help of two birdies, getting off to a sedate start as the European Tour returned to action. Shubhankar Sharma was even par through twelve holes when play was suspended for light at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. He started off the tenth tee, making back to back birdies at the start of his round. Shubhankar also made a birdie on the second hole, but bogeys at the 16th, 1st and 3rd holes pegged him to even par with six holes to complete his round.
Bhullar had a rousing finish to 2020, when he returned home for a successful run in the PGTI Tour’s calendar finale at Jamshedpur last year. The 32-year-old strung together a two-stroke victory over S Chikkarangappa, with a 24-under total of 272. In the opening round in Abu Dhabi, Bhullar was out in 37, conceding a bogey on the par-5 second hole. But he made amends on the home stretch, collecting birdies at the 10th and 18th, leaving himself on shaky ground at 53rd on the leaderboard.
After morning fog had caused a delay of almost three hours, early starter McIlroy fired a flawless 64 to set the early clubhouse target at eight under par and open up a one shot lead over nearest challenger Tyrrell Hatton.
World Number Six McIlroy gave himself a birdie chance at nearly every hole and putted beautifully throughout the round to continue his love affair with Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he has secured eight top five finishes in ten previous appearances.
Starting at the tenth tee, the Northern Irishman made four birdies and no bogeys on both nines, taking advantage of every single one of the course’s four par fives.
Hatton, meanwhile, bookended his front nine with eagles at the tenth and 18th before making three birdies down the stretch to sign for a bogey free 65.
Fabrizio Zanotti was a single stroke further back after starting with a sparkling 66.
Beginning his round two hours and 55 minutes later than originally scheduled, McIlroy got off to a bright start, confidently pouring in birdie putts from around 12 feet at the tenth and 12th to move to two under par.
He created further birdie chances at the 13th and 14th but had to settle for pars there before picking up another shot from 30 feet on the short 15th.
After watching two more birdie putts slide just by, McIlroy closed his front nine with a gain at the par five 18th to get to four under and head to the turn alongside Romain Langasque at the top of the leaderboard.
The four time Major Champion then began his homeward nine with a birdie from nine feet to grab the outright lead on five under before Langasque followed up his birdie at the same hole with further gains at the second and third to leapfrog McIlroy at the summit.
The Northern Irishman responded with a close range birdie at the long second after his eagle effort from 25 feet pulled up just short.
McIlroy came agonisingly close to making it four in a row at the third but his curling 30 foot birdie putt just stayed above ground.
He then saved par at the short fourth courtesy of a lovely bunker shot after his tee shot had landed in the sand.
The 31-year-old found himself alone at the top of the leaderboard once more when he holed his 20 foot birdie effort from the fringe of the sixth green to move to seven under.
McIlroy kept his card clean with a par from close range at the short seventh before picking up his eighth shot of the day from 25 feet on the eighth green.
He had a good chance to get to nine under but could not convert his 20 foot birdie try at his closing hole.
McIlroy, who is still searching for his maiden win here, was delighted with his first round performance, particularly on the greens.
He said: “A lot of it was very good. I felt like I drove the ball well for the most part. Distance control was really good.
“I think I started off really well and hit a lot of nice iron shots.
“But honestly it was probably the best I’ve putted these greens in Abu Dhabi probably in my whole career.
“I’ve shot some really good scores here but I held some really good ones today.
“And I’ve always struggled to read them here, but I sort of got my eye in early and kept it going.”
Hatton got his year off to the perfect start, launching his second shot into the tenth to five feet before rolling in for an opening eagle.
He then broke a run of seven straight pars with another eagle from tap-in range on the 18th, having come close to securing an albatross.
After picking up birdies at the second and fourth, Hatton closed his round with another from 15 feet on the ninth to get within a single shot of McIlroy.
Speaking about his first eagle, the Englishman said: “Obviously two good shots. It’s not often you’re hitting 3-wood to five feet – a nice one to start the day.
“You can’t win the tournament today or through to Saturday, but obviously it’s a nice start.”