ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Rory McIlroy conjured a moment of magic to spark a first-round revival at the Abu Dhabi Championship on Thursday, with a 5-under 67 leaving the world's top-ranked player two shots off the early lead in his first event of 2015.
With his ball on the lip of a fairway bunker on No. 3 - his 12th hole - McIlroy overcame a very awkward and unusual stance to find the green from around 95 yards and sink a 12-foot putt.
That was the first of five birdies in McIlroy's last seven holes, leaving the Northern Irishman in contention as he looks to back up a stunning 2014 when he won two majors and returned to the top of the rankings.
''I was just trying to get it on the green,'' McIlroy said about an impudent shot that revived memories of the late Seve Ballesteros. ''From looking like going 1 over to finishing 5 under, I'm very happy.''
Rickie Fowler, McIlroy's playing partner, spoiled a great round marked by a string of superb putts by bogeying his last hole to also shoot 67 in his first ever round in the gulf.
Belgium's Thomas Pieters, who has never won a European Tour event, was leading after shooting a 7-under 65 under sunny skies and with just a hint of a breeze. South Africa's Brandon Grace and France's Gregory Bourdy were tied for second, a shot behind.
McIlroy didn't swing a club for nearly a month either side of Christmas, but his complete break from golf has not done him any harm.
His first shot of 2015 was a 315-yard drive down the middle of the par-5 10th fairway and he birdied the hole for the perfect start to his attempt to win this tournament for the first time, after three runner-up finishes since 2011.
McIlroy's short game made up for some errant drives for the rest of his front nine but the spectacular shot on No. 3 proved to be a catalyst. With one foot in the face of a bunker and the other out of the hazard, he had to open the face of his wedge and dig out a shot. The result brought the biggest cheer of the day from a sparse crowd at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
''It's not a shot I practice a lot,'' said McIlroy, who holed from 15 feet on No. 4, 10 feet on Nos. 5 and 7 and eight feet on No. 8 for birdies that allowed him to chase down Fowler.
The American star, who lost out to McIlroy in the British Open and U.S. PGA Championship last year, upstaged his rival by making six birdies in 11 holes starting at No. 15 - his sixth hole. However, Fowler sent his approach at the last through the green, misjudged a flop shot on the way back and missed a 10-foot par putt.
The 22-year-old Pieters is playing his second season on the European Tour after a superb college career in which he was NCAA champion in his sophomore year at the University of Illinois. He was 7 under after 13 holes and picked up another shot at the last after bogeying No. 15.
''I've been driving it a lot better,'' said the Belgian player. ''I think that's the key round here.''
Henrik Stenson had a double-bogey on his first hole and didn't make any birdies in a 76. Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and defending champion Pablo Larrazabal were among the later starters.