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| 18 January, 2018

Golf-Fleetwood, Tanihara lead in Abu Dhabi as McIlroy returns

Fleetwood hit six birdies to card a six-under-par 66 and was matched by Tanihara.

Golf - European Tour - Alfred Dunhill Links Championship - Kingsbarns, Britain - October 7, 2017   Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland in action during the third round   Action Images via Reuters/Craig Brough

Golf - European Tour - Alfred Dunhill Links Championship - Kingsbarns, Britain - October 7, 2017 Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland in action during the third round Action Images via Reuters/Craig Brough

Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood and Japan's Hideto Tanihara took the first round lead at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday, while Rory McIlroy returned to competitive golf for the first time since October.

Fleetwood hit six birdies to card a six-under-par 66 and was matched by Tanihara. The duo both finished without hitting a single bogey at the Abu Dhabi golf club.

"Very stress-free," Fleetwood said after the round. "Played really well from start to finish. Felt like I did what you need to do well around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons, but you can't really be too greedy all the time.

"My pace putting was really good. Just basically did what you need to do to get a good score around the golf course. 18 greens, doesn't happen very often so nice to do it around here. All in all, very good morning." Fabrizio Zanotti, Ross Fisher, Thomas Pieters, Sam Brazel and Bernd Wiesberger all carded five-under-par 67s while nine players, including Richie Ramsay and Mikko Ilonen, scored four-under-par 68s to round out the top 16 positions.

Four-times major winner McIlroy, who started alongside Fleetwood and world number one Dustin Johnson in the marquee group, overcame a slow start to end the round with a three-under-par 69 to finish in 17th position.

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"It was nice. I sort of knew what I was expecting out there but at the same time, you never really know," McIlroy said.

"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... it was nice to birdie three of the last seven there and get in under 70."

Johnson had a disappointing round after hitting four bogeys and four birdies to finish level on par ahead of the second round on Friday.

(Reporting by Aditi Prakash in Bengaluru, editing by Pritha Sarkar) ((Aditi.Prakash@thomsonreuters.com;))