McIlroy makes error-free return; Dunne two off the lead
 Tommy Fleetwood, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. Credit: Getty Images

Tommy Fleetwood, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. Credit: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy got confirmation that he's ready to take on the world again when he opened with an immaculate 69 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Exactly 102 days after his last start of a winless 2017, normal service resumed at Abu Dhabi Golf Club as he opened with a sub-par round in the UAE for the seventh time in eight years.

He wasn't the best of three-strong Irish challenge as Paul Dunne posted a four-under 68 to end the opening day tied for eighth, just two strokes behind reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood and Japan's Hideto Tanihara.

But after following 11 opening pars with three birdies in his last seven holes and shooting 69 to Fleetwood's impressive 66 and an erratic 72 from world No 1 Dustin Johnson, the Co Down man was pleased to see how well his game stacked up after a 14-week sabbatical.

To put his round in context, he had just one bogey-free round in 2017

“Really pleased, actually," said McIlroy, who admitted to some first tee butterflies for his early morning start. 

"I played very solid. I think only missed one or two greens, so gave myself plenty of chances. Drove the ball well. Iron play was pretty good. So just need to keep doing that over the next three days and I should have a chance."

"I was excited to get going. The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and things I needed to work on health-wise and all that sort of stuff.

"So feel like I'm nearly the most prepared for a season that I've ever been, so those couple of months were nice. 

I was probably a little nervous on the first tee," said McIlroy, who played very well from tee to green. "I had no problems last night or this morning. That was all fine.

"But yeah, I was just excited to get going. It's another season, a season that I feel like I'm as prepared for as any season I've started as a professional."

The only time McIlroy has failed to break par in the opening round of the season in Abu Dhabi was that forgettable 2013 campaign when he shot 75.

The 2017 season was far better than 2013 and after seeing McIlroy bounce back in 2014 with two major wins, Thursday's 69 bodes well for his 11th full campaign as a professional.

If he was looking for a quick litmus test of the state of the game, he saw no better way to find out where he stands than to tee it up with Fleetwood and Johnson, who have won seven times over the past 12 months.

"Tommy had one of the best years out of anyone last year, winning The Race to Dubai and having a few wins," said McIlroy, who ended the day tied for 17th. "DJ is obviously No. 1 player in the world. So, to see where I'm at compared to where they are, it was nice.

"Drove the ball well. Iron play was pretty good. So just need to keep doing that over the next three days and I should have a chance.

"The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and things I needed to work on health-wise and all that sort of stuff.

"So feel like I'm nearly the most prepared for a season that I've ever been, so those couple of months were nice." 

It was also a satisfying day for Dunne, who went out in the afternoon and also went bogey-free for his 68 by following an opening birdie with three more in a row from the 10th.

Graeme McDowell is joint 37th after a 70 but the day belonged to Fleetwood, who hit all 18 greens in regulation in his bogey-free 66.

The Englishman opened with a birdie on the 10th and posted two more on his front nine before picking up a further three shots after the turn to share the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara, one shot clear of Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, who both finished birdie-eagle.

As for Johnson, he mixed four birdies with four bogeys in his level par round of 72, badly slicing his tee shot into a lake miles to the right of the ninth, his closing hole.

“It was very good. Very stress-free," Fleetwood said. "I played really well from start to finish. It felt like I did what you need to do well around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons well, but you can't really be too greedy all the time. 

"Then my pace putting was really good. I just basically did what you need to do to get a good score around the golf course.

“I think during my career, I think I'm going to struggle to find a better three ball, really. It doesn't matter how long I play. That might be the best one I get."

As for McIlroy, he was pleased he remained patient.

“I sort of knew what I was expecting out there but at the same time, you never really know," he said. "It was my first competitive round in over a hundred days, so it's a little bit different. 

"But I did well. I stayed patient. I gave myself loads of chances and started the day with 11 straight pars, so I was trying to stay as patient as possible, so it was nice to birdie three of the last seven there and get in under 70.

"I hit a couple of loose iron shots early on, but then I sort of found my rhythm a little bit and started to hit some good shots. 

"I took a bit of yardage off a couple of iron shots and knocked a couple down which was really nice to see. Hit a lovely little 6-iron into the 16th which was a nice shot.

"Yeah, I felt like my swing was under control and I was able to hit every shot that I needed to."

That's always an ominous sign for McIlroy's rivals.

“My expectation coming into this week was that I could win, but I think after the first day, seeing where my game's at and playing alongside two of the most in-form players in the world right now, I feel like I'm not that far away."

Cameo of the day came from 13-year old Oscar Murphy, an Abu Dhabi-based native of Northern Ireland, who beat Johnson and Fleetwood in the Beat the Pro challenge at the 177-yard, par-three 15th, where he cut a three wood to 25 feet.

“The pin was tucked on the right and he hit this three wood, just faded in to the pin,” said Fleetwood. “An unbelievable shot and me and Rory both said 'we don't have that in our locker'. I was playing middle of the green because I couldn't get to it so very, very impressive."

McIlroy added: “Oscar lives here. He's from Northern Ireland so he's been following me since the 2011 PGA Championship in Atlanta.

“Every round I play here I feel like he's my little mascot. I wasn't expecting to see him on the tee there – I was a little bit surprised to see him inside the ropes but he hit a great shot.”

Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA, Abu Dhabi Golf Club (Par 72)

Detailed scores

66 T Fleetwood (Eng), H Tanihara (Jpn), 

67 S Brazel (Aus), T Pieters (Bel), R Fisher (Eng), F Zanotti (Par), B Wiesberger (Aut), 

68 O Fisher (Eng), P Dunne (Irl), M Ilonen (Fin), A Johnston (Eng), C Pigem (Esp), S Gallacher (Sco), R Sterne (RSA), M Fitzpatrick (Eng), R Ramsay (Sco), 

69 T Olesen (Den), C Paisley (Eng), J Luiten (Ned), D Frittelli (RSA), J Scrivener (Aus), B Stone (RSA), J Campillo (Esp), L Slattery (Eng), T Hatton (Eng), S Vincent (Zim), K Broberg (Swe), A Levy (Fra), J Lagergren (Swe), T Immelman (RSA), N Colsaerts (Bel), R McIlroy (Nir), D Burmester (RSA), M Kaymer (Ger), R Wattel (Fra), A Björk (Swe), 

70 T Detry (Bel), P Casey (Eng), P Waring (Eng), G Havret (Fra), A Otaegui (Esp), A Chesters (Eng), N Bertasio (Ita), L Jensen (Den), R Fox (Nzl), A Quiros (Esp), M Manassero (Ita), A Sullivan (Eng), P Hanson (Swe), H Stenson (Swe), G McDowell (Nir), K Aphibarnrat (Tha), D Im (USA), T Aiken (RSA), 

71 J Rose (Eng), W Ashun (Chn), A Cañizares (Esp), S Hend (Aus), B An (Kor), P Larrazábal (Esp), C Hanson (Eng), R Karlsson (Swe), D Lipsky (USA), G Bourdy (Fra), S Sharma (Ind), J Wang (Kor), M Wallace (Eng), M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), 

72 B Hebert (Fra), R Cabrera Bello (Esp), R Jacquelin (Fra), D Johnson (USA), M Kuchar (USA), D Horsey (Eng), G Coetzee (RSA), L Bjerregaard (Den), D Brooks (Eng), A Connelly (Can), A Romero (Arg), H Porteous (RSA), E Pepperell (Eng), B Grace (RSA), R Gouveia (Por), J Smith (Eng), G Stal (Fra), A Wall (Eng), D Drysdale (Sco), S Kjeldsen (Den), 

73 J Norris (Aus), T Bjørn (Den), Z Lombard (RSA), M Kieffer (Ger), T Jaidee (Tha), M Warren (Sco), D Fichardt (RSA), L Haotong (Chn), J Donaldson (Wal), M Korhonen (Fin), W Ormsby (Aus), S Han (USA), C Shinkwin (Eng), 

74 E Molinari (Ita), R Bland (Eng), M Southgate (Eng), G Storm (Eng), S Lee (Kor), L Westwood (Eng), T Buchanan (Sco), C Wood (Eng), R Rock (Eng), B Dechambeau (USA), P Lawrie (Sco), N Elvira (Esp), D Kirkwood (am) (Eng) ,, 

75 J Morrison (Eng), I Poulter (Eng), J Kruyswijk (RSA), S Jamieson (Sco), M Siem (Ger), 

76 R Paratore (Ita), E Els (RSA), A Dodt (Aus), 

77 P Khongwatmai (Tha), M Pavon (Fra), 

78 J Olazábal (Esp), 

86 A Al Musharrekh (UAE)