Reigning champion Tommy Fleetwood was serenaded with a billowing chorus of “Happy Birthday” approaching the 18th green before being presented with a cake by Rory McIlroy as he celebrated turning 27 by staying in contention at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The birthday boy holed a birdie for good measure – agonisingly missing out on an eagle – as he shot a four under par 68 to sit nicely poised in a share of third at Abu Dhabi Golf Club alongside compatriot Ross Fisher and France’s Alexander Levy, on -10 under.
Fleetwood birdied 17 and 18 but bogeyed 16, admitting he “hung on” as playing partners McIlroy and Dustin Johnson played some scintillating stuff to also remain in contention.
McIlroy eagled the 18th on his way to a bogey free round of -6 under 66, while world number one Johnson sunk eight birdies as he also went bogey free to put his level par 72 from day one to the back of his mind with a sublime -8 under 64.
The American posted the joint best round of the day alongside South Africa’s Branden Grace and Spain’s Jorge Campillo – who is outright second, behind Belgium’s Thomas Pieters – to sit in a seven-way tie for 11th.
With the Southport native nicely poised at the halfway point as he looks to win the competition in the UAE for the first time, Fleetwood insisted birthday celebrations would be fairly muted.
“I don’t think there will be that much celebrating going on. I’ll celebrate with some water, I think,” said the world number 18.
“It was nice to wake up today with my son, a first birthday with a son. I’ve not done that before so that was very cool.
“We’ve not made many plans so we’ll see where the night takes us, but I’m sure it won’t take us very far. I’ve got a late start but, still, I’m sure it won’t take us very far.”
An additional gift came from Northern Irishman McIlroy, who gatecrashed Fleetwood’s interview after his round to present him with a raspberry-infused chocolate cake.
McIlroy joked he had made it himself and Fleetwood offered him a slice, while also admitting playing with the world number 11 and 1 was another gift.
“For as long as I’ll play golf I’m not sure I’ll play with two better players. It was always going to be enjoyable,” Fleetwood said of his playing partners.
“Being a golf fan as well as a player, it was nice. I had a really nice time out there. It was a bit more scrappy for me today, especially that back nine. It was about being patient.”
Frustrated by missed earlier chances, McIlroy converted from 20ft for an eagle on the last, much to the delight of a packed grandstand.
“It was a nice way to finish,” admitted the 28-year-old, who is in a five-way tie for sixth.
“I felt like I gave myself tons of chances on the back nine and it was difficult to convert them. I stayed patient and feel like I got what I deserved on the last for staying so patient and it was nice to finish with a three, leapfrog a few guys and get myself into contention for the weekend.”
The four-time major winner also felt he fed off the atmosphere playing with Fleetwood and an electric Johnson.
He added: “Dustin played awfully well, he showed quite a lot of resilience. Tommy didn’t play quite as well as on Thursday, but he’s right in the mix.
“We all played well. Everyone was hitting good shots. That’s all we were seeing and it is nice when you play in a group like that, you feed off one another.”
Johnson admitted jet-lag may have been a contributing factor in his disappointing opening round, but he was pleased following a “stress free” second day.
“I did everything really well,” said the 33-year-old.
“It was a pretty easy 64. I hit it really well, it was just really solid all day long. I did everything a lot better today.”
Anyone for some friendly Ryder Cup competition?
Europe’s Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose took on USA’s Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar in a game of trivia on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Watch the video above to find out who won — Europe or USA?
Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood fired a six-under par 66 for a two-way share of first-round lead at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
The Englishman, back at the scene of his win last year, was joined by Hideto Tanihara of Japan at the top of the leaderboard on Thursday.
Another five players are one stroke back, including Fabrizio Zanotti, Ross Fisher, Thomas Pieters, Sam Brazel and Bernd Wiesberger.
Fleetwood said: “(I) 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.
“Then sort of my pace putting was really good. Just basically did what you need to do to get a good score around the golf course.”
It was at the Abu Dhabi venue last year, where the 26-year-old underlined his class en route to winning the Race to Dubai title.
“I drove it well. Got a way with a couple of tee shots. The rough is actually thick in parts. You think the rough is okay at times but other times it will catch you out,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy got his 2018 campaign off to a tonic start with a bogey-free 69 to finish in a tie for 17th at the end of day one.
The Northern Irishman shot a solid three-under in the first eight holes, and then went on to par the next 10 holes.
“(It’s my) first competitive round in over a hundred days, so it’s a little bit different. But I did well. I stayed patient,” said McIlroy.
“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.”