In a group that featured three of golf's top-ranked players in Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, McIlroy shot the best opening-round score at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship with a six-under 66.
After a round that included eight birdies, McIlroy stands tied for third place at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, trailing American amateur Bryson DeChambeau (eight-under 64) and Henrik Stenson (seven-under 65).
"Teeing off on Thursday morning, it's your first competitive shot in a couple of months," McIlroy said. "To tee up alongside those guys [Spieth and Fowler], the excitement. There's a buzz about it. Like I said, every year coming back here to Abu Dhabi, it was sort of the same last year with Rickie and the previous couple of years it was with Tiger."
Spieth and Fowler remain close behind at scores of 68 and 70, respectively. Spieth's four-under first round slots him into a tie for eighth place, while Fowler sits tied for 30th. Spieth's round also included being hit by European Tour official John Paramor with a "monitoring penalty" for slow play as part of the tour's new policy to help players pick up the pace.
Other players in the mix at the top of the leader board include Branden Grace (six-under 66, T-3), David Howell, Thomas Bjorn (four-under 68, tied for eighth) and Martin Kaymer (three-under 69, tied for 12th).
DeChambeau is playing the event on a sponsor's exemption. The 22-year-old reigning NCAA and U.S. Amateur champion remains an amateur as he awaits his chance to play in the Masters in April, but is preparing by playing in a handful of professional events. In addition to an exemption in Abu Dhabi, he also has spots in the field next week at Qatar and the following week in Dubai.