Defending champion Fleetwood upstages McIlroy, Johnson

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson proved unable to keep pace with Tommy Fleetwood as he seeks to retain the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Tommy Fleetwood (C) playing with Dustin Johnson (L) and Rory McIlroy (R)   -  Getty Images

Tommy Fleetwood claims he may never find himself with two more prestigious playing partners than Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, but it was the defending champion who set the pace in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday.

Fleetwood won in the United Arab Emirates 12 months ago to make a strong start to a season that ultimately saw him win the European Tour's Race to Dubai.

And there was more of the same from the 26-year-old Englishman as he opened his title defence in confident fashion, Fleetwood hitting every green in regulation on the way to carding a bogey-free six-under 66.

Four-time major champion McIlroy, making his first competitive appearance since ending his 2017 season prematurely in October to recover from a rib problem, shot a three-under 69 to sit tied 17th, having also avoided dropping a shot.

World number one Johnson, meanwhile, made four birdies and four bogeys on a frustrating outing to settle for an even-par 72 and a share of 69th.

"During my career, I'm going to struggle to find a better three-ball, really," Fleetwood was quoted as saying by the European Tour website. 

"Doesn't matter how long I play. That might be the best one I get.

"All you can do is concentrate on your own game and that's what you always do, is you set out to play the best you can.

"These two, I don't know what I'll do in my career and nobody knows what the future holds, but I think these two might be going down in the history books, so it will be nice to tell them that I played these two in a three-ball."

Japan's Hideto Tanihara shares first place with Fleetwood, while Belgian Thomas Pieters is tied for third at five under alongside four other players, Ross Fisher and Bernd Wiesberger among them.

A shot further back is a nine-strong group including Pieters' 2016 European Ryder Cup team-mate Matthew Fitzpatrick and his popular fellow Englishman Andrew 'Beef' Johnston, who is seeking to climb back up the rankings after battling a shoulder injury last year.

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