ABU DHABI UAE, January 27 – Rory McIlroy used muscle power to steal an early season march on his main rivals for golfing dominance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on Thursday.
The 22-year-old Ulsterman, who spent much of his winter break in the gym working on his physique, wrestled his way around the par-72 National Course for a five under 67 that included seven birdies against two bogeys.
That was three shots better than Tiger Woods and four ahead of Luke Donald, the two men he played with in what was the first round’s big drawing card.
It left him joint leader, with Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, of the $2.7million dollars European Tour tournament which opens a three-week long swing through the Gulf states and effectively kick-starts the season for the elite of world golf.
Gareth Maybin of Northern Ireland, Richard Finch of England and Jean-Baptiste Gonnet of France were joint third at four under.
A stroke further back came Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium, Robert Rock of England and Richie Ramsay of Scotland
In what was one of the best fields ever assembled outside of a Grand Slam or WGC tournament, six of the world’s top 10 were present as well as a resurgent Woods.
World number two Lee Westwood, looking to make it three wins in a row after a strong finish to last year, had a 72, while number four Martin Kaymer, out to win this tournament for the third straight year, disappointed with a 77.
Playing in the same group, Spain’s Sergio Garcia sunk a seven-iron ace from 193 yards at the 12th en route to a 71.
It was the first ace of a career on the European Tour that goes back to 1995 when he made his debut as a 15-year-old amateur.
McIlroy, who ended the 2012 season laid low by Dengue fever, looked refreshed and keen as he sprinted out of the blocks with a run of three birdies from his second hole.
He was wayward off the tee at times, but scrambled well from the rough to post the joint best score of the day.
The Northern Irishman, who won the US Open by eight strokes last year for his first major title, said his close-season efforts in the gym were bearing fruit.
“I’ve been working hard in the gym, which has been good. I really started working hard last year and I really got into it and really started to enjoy it.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot stronger and it’s definitely helped my golf as well. Basically every day since the start of the year I’ve been in there.”
Woods showed that his renewed confidence in his ball-striking abilities is justified as he went bogey-free in a round of 70.
The 36-year-old American was the focus of attention once again as he lit the fuse on a campaign that he hopes will see him return to the forefront and possibly add to his majors haul of 14.
A win here could propel him back into the world top 10, but the main objective he has is to win a 15th Grand Slam title at Augusta National in early April.
“Hit the ball well all day today,” was his verdict on the state of his game. The problem was with his putting.
“I just had a hard time reading the greens out there. The greens were pretty grainy and I just had a hard time getting a feel for it.
“Towards the end I hit some pretty good putts, but overall I got fooled a lot on my reads.”
Donald got little going in his round other than two birdies wrapped around the turn as he opened a season he hopes will finally see him win an elusive major title.
But he said the desert experience had been an enjoyable one.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said.
“I think between us we hit a lot of solid shots today. Tiger and I didn’t take as many opportunities on the greens.
“Rory played some nice golf too. It was a great threesome to be part of.”