Rory McIlroy might have made a slow start to 2015 but after going out in level par with one birdie and one bogey on his card, the world No 1 was inspired by a back nine wonder-shot as he stormed home in 31 to match pal Rickie Fowler in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Five birdies in his last seven holes on the front nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club gave McIlroy a five under par 67, the same score as Fowler, who failed to birdie the par-five eighth and then bogeyed the ninth.
Austria's Thomas Pieters blasted eight birdies in a seven under par 65 to take an early one-stroke clubhouse lead as McIlroy followed a birdie at the 10th and a bogey at the 17th with a superb finish. But by the end of the day it was three-time Abu Dhabi winner Martin Kaymer who got his year off to the perfect start thanks to an opening 64.
The birdie that made all the difference came at the 439-yard third, where McIlroy's pulled tee shot stayed above a fairway bunker by no more than a couple of inches.
Forced to stand in the sand, hood the club face and aim right, he hit a remarkable approach to 10 feet made the first of three birdies in a row before picking up two more shots at the short seventh and par-five eighth before eventually catching Fowler at the ninth.
"It's definitely a boost," McIlroy said of his round changing birdie at the third, his 12th. "It's not a shot I would practice too much that's for sure. But from looking like you were going to make a bogey to make a birdie, that gives you a little bit of momentum and you can go on from there to make a few more birdies after that."
Looking at Fowler, his big rival in 2014, McIlroy explained: "I was just trying to keep up with this guy. He was making some birdies on a nice little run around the turn. It was looking like I might make bogey on that third hole with that dodgy lie just over the bunker.
"So having the chance to shoot six under at the last was a nice finish and I'll need to do a lot more of that over the next few days if I want to have the chance to win.'
After missing eight of the 14 fairways, McIlroy added: "I will need to hit more fairways as well. I didn't drive the ball particularly well and that's something I'll need to do a little bit better if I am to have a chance."
Fowler, who finished in the top 5 in all four majors last year, went out in two under par but then birdied the first, fourth, fifth and seventh to get to six under before dropping his only shot of the day at the ninth.
"I was a little shaky this morning," said the American, who led McIlroy by three strokes with seven to play. "I've only played two events since the Ryder Cup, so it was nice to get things off to a consistent start and throw some birdies in there.
"Unfortunately, I made bogey at the last but I made some good swings coming down the street and it was a good start."
Asked by on-course commentator Wayne Riley if frequent rival McIlroy was "starting to annoy" him, Fowler smiled and said: "Well, I can't get rid of him that's the bard part. I keep getting paired with him and we've had some groups on the weekend together, which is obviously a good thing.
"Best player in the world so if I'm hanging around him a little bit I am doing the right thing. We're both off to a solid start. It was nice to see him throw in a few birdies and get things going on the back nine today."
McIlroy and Fowler are tied for eighth behind Kaymer, 30 last month, who carded his tenth birdie of the day at the 18th for the best round of his career at this tournament.
Two dropped shots around the turn cost the US Open Champion a chance at equalling Henrik Stenson’s nine year old course record at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, but he was pleased to get off to another good start in the UAE.
"You always come fresh to Abu Dhabi after a long break, and I usually practice really well before," Kaymer said after his 64. “I think the key the last few years has been my putting and I putted really well today. I made ten birdies, and there were, I think, only three putts in those ten birdies that were over 15 to 18 feet, and that's very rare. So I putted very well and that has probably been the key the last few years and today, too.
“I made ten birdies and I'm not sure if I have ever done that before. I hit a lot of fairways, my irons were quite sharp and I putted well, so it's very difficult to shoot a bad score when you play like that.
“Now the goal is not to compare myself tomorrow to this round and what happened today. Tomorrow will be a new start, but it's a brilliant start to a great tournament.”
Michael Hoey got his year off to an excellent start with a three under 69 worth a share of 25th as Damien McGrange battled back from one over through nine to shoot a 71. As for Darren Clarke, he's just outside the cut mark after holing little in a level par 72.