He might have been outscored by US Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau and Swede Henrik Stenson but Rory McIlroy said he "couldn't be happier" with his start to 2016 after cruising to a 66 to edge world No 1 Jordan Spieth by two strokes in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
As the Swede bogeyed the ninth but still shot a seven under 65 to take the clubhouse lead before DeChambeau weighed in with a birdie at the 18th for a 64, McIlroy made eight birdies in a six under effort that equalled his best start in an event where he's had four runner up finishes in eight starts.
And while he might have said in the build up that he was not trying to put down a marker, McIlroy will be quietly pleased to have put one over on the man who dominated 2015 with a run at the Grand Slam and two major wins with McIlroy in the field for both.
McIlroy three-putted twice but also made one for birdie from off the green at the par-five-eighth, his 17th, where Spieth misread a six footer for his four having almost holed his third shot from the fairway.
The American was angry that he misread his putt and lost another shot to McIlroy who had hooked his fairway wood approach into the deep rough but somehow conjured up a birdie.
It was no surprise that the Holywood star outdrove the American by 30 yards at times. But Spieth closed the gap to just two strokes at the finish, hitting a superb iron shot to around 15 feet before inevitably rolling home a 15 footer for a closing birdie and a four under 68 as world No 6 Rickie Fowler posted a 70
McIlroy had lipped out from 30 feet but he was more than pleased with his start to the season.
"I think it showed out there. I was pretty excited to get going, especially playing in a group like that. First round of the year, I couldn't be happier," McIlroy told Sky Sports after another exhibition on long, straight driving. "I drove the ball really well and that's the secret to this golf course — drive it well and keep it in play. If you do hit it into the rough it's awfully difficult even just to reach the green. So I drove the ball and I will need to keep doing that over the next few days to have a chance.
"This is my ninth time in Abu Dhabi and it has been a great way to start the year but I haven't been able to get the victory. So hopefully I can change that this year. To start the season with a win here would be fantastic so hopefully I can play like that over the next three days."
On playing with Fowler and Spieth, McIlroy said it made the start of the year that little bit "extra special."
"It just gives it that something extra," he said. "I have experienced it in the past with Rickie last year and with Tiger a couple of times in previous years. It just gives you that little - instead of playing a quiet nine holes and just easing your way into it, you are concentrating right from the get go. So it is a nice way to focus the mind and get down to it."
Spieth was clearly impressed by what he saw:
As for Stenson, he was also happy with his opening round.
Darren Clarke and Michael Hoey were among the later starters.