Golf: Fleetwood sets pace to open title defence

Fleetwood plays during round one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Fleetwood plays during round one of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.PHOTO: AFP

ABU DHABI (AFP) - Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood picked up from where he left off in the UAE capital, racing to the top of the leaderboard early in the US$3 million (S$4 million) Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Thursday (Jan 18) with a bogey-free round of 66.

The Englishman was later joined on the top of the leaderboard by Japan's Hideto Tanihara, who also managed to keep the bogeys away from his six-birdie card.

Former world No.1 Rory McIlroy, playing alongside Fleetwood and top-ranked Dustin Johnson, made an excellent return to competition golf with a three-birdie round of 69. He started with 11 consecutive pars from the 10th tee, but stayed patient and found some joy coming in.

American Johnson made four birdies but also an equal number of bogeys, including one on his last hole where he pushed his tee shot into the water, for an even-par 72 start. England's Justin Rose, the second highest ranked player in the field at No.6, was one better at 71, while No.9 Henrik Stenson finished on two-under par 70.

The 26-year-old Fleetwood, who started his 2017 winning this tournament by a shot over Johnson, then went on to secure the European Tour's Race to Dubai title at the end of the year. And he showed no signs of cooling off with his round on Thursday, which featured hitting all 18 greens in regulation.

"It really was a very good day, very stress-free," said Fleetwood, also the winner of the French Open last year.

"I had control of my ball really from the get-go. Just sort of did what you need to do well around here to get a good score. I drove it well.

"Hitting 18 greens, that doesn't happen very often, so nice to do it around here. My pace putting was really good. I didn't put myself under any stress at all."

MCILROY PREACHES PATIENCE

McIlroy, playing his first competitive round since October 8 when he shut down his injury-ravaged 2017 season much earlier than scheduled, drove the ball beautifully, but was frustrated early in his round as he could not convert his birdie chances. That included a three-putt par on the par-5 18th hole, his ninth of the day after starting from the 10th tee.

"It was nice. I was excited to get going. The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and things I needed to work on health-wise and all that sort of stuff," said the four-time major champion.

"So feel like I'm nearly the most prepared for a season that I've ever been. Tommy obviously played very well and I was just trying to hang on to his coattails for most of the round. A bogey-free 69, I can't really complain.

"I started off with 11 pars and could have been a lot better than that. I tried to stay as patient as possible. But when it's the first day back in the year, it's easier to stay patient.

"So I was just trying my best and trying to hit a good shot every time and trying to hit good putts even if they weren't going in, just move on to the next hole and try to do the same thing. I was proud of myself the way I hung in there."

Five players were tied on third place at five-under par 67, including England's Ross Fisher, Belgium's Thomas Pieters, Austria's Bernd Wiesberger, Australia's Sam Brazel and Paraguay's Fabrizio Zanotti.