Rory McIlroy endured his worse year as a professional last year but made an encouraging start to the new campaign with a tied third finish at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
After a tied 63rd at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October, the Northern-Irishman took four-and-a-half months off to work on his came.
His work came into fruition this week at an event he has a phenomenal, but winless, record at; coming up just shy of Tommy Fleetwood and Ross Fisher and finishing at 18-under-par, McIlroy widely impressed on his awaited comeback.Embed from Getty Images
The week improved as it went on for McIlroy. A modest opening 69 left the world-number-11 three shots back but following with a 66 and a moving-day 65 he was just a shot off Fisher and Thomas Pieters’ lead with one-round remaining.
Two birdies through the opening four holes kept McIlroy within touching distance of now-solo leader Fisher, and caught him up with 54-hole joint-leader Pieters at 18-under-par.
Pieters soon fell back as Fisher and McIlroy moved ahead with birdies apiece, but a bogey on six for McIlroy knocked him back level with Pieters at 17-under, now three off Fisher’s commanding lead.
As McIlroy battled to maintain his score, Fisher was only improving his. A birdie on the par-three seventh extended his lead to four although that was soon reduced to three again with McIlroy’s makeshift birdie on the par five eighth.
McIlroy battled against the ninth hole and thought he had holed out from the bunker for a birdie but for the lip. A salvaged par meant that when he, and Fisher, had made the turn he sat three shots back.Embed from Getty Images
A par five on the 10th will have felt like a dropped shot for McIlroy, until Fisher had trouble in the dessert and could only manage a bogey and cut the deficit to two.
Having looked up all round McIlroy suddenly had as much challenge from below. Consecutive birdies on the 12th and 13th from defending-champion Fleetwood put him solo-second – one back from Fisher – and knocked McIlroy down to third.
Whilst McIlroy failed to break rut of six consecutive pars, Fleetwood made it four birdies in six holes, and then five birdies in seven holes to knock Fisher off top spot and move to 21-under-par.
Fisher’s challenge took a turn for the worse on the 15th when a bogey dropped him to two back of Fleetwood, and only one ahead of McIlroy, and now Pieters, in tied third.
McIlroy’s frustrating par run extended to eight holes before a bogey and birdie closed out a final round of 70 and he finished four shots off the pace.Embed from Getty Images
Fleetwood’s 65 was enough to see off Fisher and retain the title that kickstarted his 2017 Race to Dubai win last year, promising success again in the new campaign.
With eight top three finishes at this event McIlroy would have been delighted to have ended the stalemate this year rather than making in nine, but considering it was his first start in over four months he can be excited by the prospects it has shown for this year.