ABU DHABI • Rory McIlroy showed little rustiness, as he returned from an extended break to shoot a six-under 66 and sit in joint-third place, two strokes clear of playing partner and world No. 1 Jordan Spieth in the first round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship yesterday.
McIlroy's last tournament appearance was in November's DP World Tour Championship which he won to top Europe's money list for a third season in four and put a gloss on an injury-interrupted season.
A year earlier, McIlroy launched his bid for the US Masters, the only Major he has yet to win, but instead of sealing a career Grand Slam he saw Spieth, 22, take both the Augusta title and later the top ranking.
"It's not about making statements or laying down markers, it's about playing the best that I can," the four-time Major winner said.
American amateur Bryson Dechambeau leads after a brilliant 64 with world No. 5, Swede Henrik Stenson, a stroke back.
Spieth finished the round tied for seventh on 68, after mixing six birdies with two bogeys. But he was left bemused after becoming the first high-profile player to receive a "monitoring penalty" for slow play.
The 22-year-old was warned after taking too long to putt on his eighth green - despite the following flight lagging far behind his group.
"It didn't make sense," he said. "The guys behind us hadn't even reached the fairway on a par five."
Under rules announced this week, players in a group that have been told they are being monitored for time must then play a shot within 40-50 seconds.
Sixth-ranked Rickie Fowler (70) completed Spieth's group that drew a crowd of more than 200 despite their near-dawn start. There was little interaction between the players on their front nine, but they were more relaxed as the round grew on.
Spieth and McIlroy chatted as they walked the later fairways.
A day earlier, the duo offered differing views on the importance of winning golfing gold at the Rio Olympics in August. While Spieth said standing on top of the podium would rank alongside winning a Major tournament, McIlroy left no doubt about which one he would rather win given the choice.
"I think a Major championship is the pinnacle of our sport. I think I'll be remembered for my Major championships," he said.
But Spieth, who will be aiming to win the SMBC Singapore Open for the first time next week, is eager to add different titles to his resume.
"If I had not won a Major, I would probably still say a Major. At this point I would argue that a gold medal would be very, very special."
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