Rory McIlroy off to a slow start in Abu Dhabi but remains in the hunt as Martin Kaymer and Tyrrell Hatton set the early pace

McIlroy took nine holes to land his first birdie while playing partner Phil Mickelson struggles with back injury

Rory McIlroy took nine holes to record his first birdie of 2014 as Jamie Donaldson's defence of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship hit the rocks on Thursday.

Donaldson looked like showing illustrious playing partners McIlroy and Phil Mickelson how it was done in the early stages of the opening round, picking up birdies at the 10th, 13th and 15th, the latter coming from a matter of inches as he narrowly missed a hole-in-one.

However, a wayward approach to the 14th had already cost Donaldson a bogey five and when he hit a near-identical shot into the 16th, the ball bounced over a cart path and nestled in rocks on the edge of a water hazard.

From there the Welshman took a penalty drop, pitched onto the green and two-putted for a double-bogey six, dropping him back to level par and alongside McIlroy and Mickelson.

McIlroy, who ended 2013 in fine form with his only victory of the year in the Australian Open, was driving the ball superbly but struggling to get close to the pin with his irons.

In contrast, Mickelson's much praised new driver - which had the Open champion talking excitedly about a career-best season - sent him 60 yards off line on the opening hole, while two birdie putts lipped out to leave the five-time major winner a frustrated figure.

McIlroy finally got into red figures on the 18th, pitching to eight feet and rolling in the birdie putt and at one under par was just two off the early lead held by Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer and England's Tyrrell Hatton.

Kaymer, who won here in 2008, 2010 and 2011, had recovered from an early bogey with four birdies in the next five holes, while Hatton had birdied the first, second and seventh.

Kaymer moved into the outright lead thanks to another birdie on the fourth, but promptly ran up a double-bogey six on the next after a wild drive meant he was unable to reach the fairway with his escape shot.

Playing partner Sergio Garcia was also in trouble, although being three over par was not as worrying as the sight of the Spaniard lying on the grass being treated by one of the European Tour physios for an apparent shoulder injury.

Garcia was four over par for his first 11 holes, but at least birdied the fifth to repair some of the damage and it remained to be seen how serious the injury would prove.

Garcia was able to complete the round and bogeyed the last for a 76, the world number 10 then criticising the "dangerous" rough before heading for more treatment.

"The problem is they have cut it from green to tee and the ball nestles down," Garcia said. "Every single ball nestles down and you can't hit it 100 yards.

"I have tweaked a muscle and hitting from the rough is not helping. We will see how it feels tomorrow. Hopefully I am not the only one (who gets hurt) but unfortunately the way the course is set up it could happen to more people."

Asked if he felt the rough was dangerous, Garcia added: "I would say so."

Mickelson admitted he had hurt his back playing from the rough on the ninth, his final hole, the left-hander carding his only bogey of the day there after 17 pars.

"I kind of hurt myself going after one," said Mickelson, who was unable to remember the last round he had completed without a single birdie. "I twinged my back on the last hole. You have to be careful and maybe just wedge it out and not risk any injury.

"It's a world-class course and there's nothing unfair about it - it's just difficult. Tomorrow I will have to be very conservative off the tee just to put it in play."

McIlroy's superb driving meant he had minimal problems with the rough, the world number seven completing a two-under 70 that left him four behind England's Matthew Baldwin, who had three holes remaining.

 

PA

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