ABU DHABI • As he was happy enough to admit, the company Rory McIlroy kept for his first competitive round in 106 days was as significant as what he produced in Abu Dhabi.
Finding 17 greens in regulation at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship yesterday was key to McIlroy's three-under 69, which would have been better but for missed putts that can reasonably be explained by professional rust.
There was to be no soft return to tournament golf as McIlroy had world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and defending champion Tommy Fleetwood, the recent European Order of Merit winner, as partners.
McIlroy duly outscored Johnson by three and while Fleetwood - whose star continues to soar - carded 66, the four-time Major winner has been given sufficient evidence to believe he can overturn that deficit over the next 54 holes.
"My expectation coming into this week was that I could win," McIlroy said. "I think after the first day, seeing where my game's at and playing alongside two of the most in-form players in the world right now, I feel I'm not far away.
Fleetwood, like McIlroy, relished his grouping at Abu Dhabi Golf Club's National course.
"I think I'm going to struggle to find a better three ball," said the clubhouse leader, who has a one-stroke advantage over his six nearest rivals.
"It felt like I did what you need to do well around this golf course which is drive it well, hit your irons but you can't really be too greedy all the time."
ABU DHABI GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP
Day 2: StarHub Ch204, 11.30am & 7pm