Rory McIlroy began his 2021 season in sparkling fashion, assembling a spotless 64 to take a one-shot first round lead over Ryder Cup team-mate Tyrrell Hatton at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday.
The four-time major winner arrived at this first of three tournaments in the Gulf after a winless 2020.
But the 31-year-old Northern Irish golfer shrugged off a near three-hour fog delay to lead the pack at eight-under par on his return to Abu Dhabi after a gap of two years.
“It feels good,” McIlroy told Sky Sports after carding his lowest score at an event where he has done well in the past without winning.
“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.”
Looking back on his 2020 which ended with a tie for fifth at the rescheduled Masters at Augusta National he said: “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.
McIlroy, who became a father last year, added: “I didn’t really take much time off after Augusta.
“I sat at home for maybe three or four days and was like I just need to get out there and sort of keep this going.
“Played quite a bit over the Christmas break and practiced quite a bit. Felt maybe as sharp as I’ve ever done coming into the start of the season. It’s paid off early.”
Hatton conjured up an eagle on his opening hole, the 10th, adding another on the par-five 18th.
The world number nine carded three birdies on the front nine, saying: “I’m really happy with that. I think I got away with it.
“In 10 holes I hit one fairway, so that wasn’t ideal. 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.”
Defending champion Lee Westwood opened with a 69 to sit five shots off the lead but world number three Justin Thomas has work to do after a struggling 73.
Lying in third place behind McIlroy and Hatton is Paraguayan Fabrizio Zanotti on six under.