(Reuters) - Rory McIlroy stormed into contention at the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi Championship, carding a second-round 67 to leave him two shots off the lead on Friday.
The former world number one covered the back nine in 31 to put him seven under par at the halfway stage and in the slipstream of joint leaders Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Craig Lee.
"I got a few putts to drop on the back nine which was nice and I feel like I have a great chance of winning," McIlroy, now ranked seventh, said on the European Tour website (www.europeantour.com).
"It would be nice to win your first start of the season rather than your last start. It's exactly what I wanted. It's a great way to test your game under pressure. With a strong start to the year you can really get some momentum."
McIlroy, twice a major champion, won the Australian Open in December and his form is a far cry from 12 months ago when he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi after consecutive rounds 75.
The Northern Irishman's second round drew wholesome praise from British Open champion Phil Mickelson.
"The back nine was really impressive, a beautiful nine holes of golf," said the American five-times major winner, who carded 70 to lie one under and narrowly avoid missing the cut.
"He is really striking the ball well. His game looks really sharp and his driving was impeccable."
Scotland's Lee, looking for his first European Tour win, claimed a share of the lead with a second round 67 and put an upturn in his short game down to having an astroturf putting green installed in his front garden.
"I think Santa has brought me a good putting stroke for Christmas," Lee said.
"My brother installed an astroturf putting green in my front garden at the end of last year and that's made a difference as I've been able to keep putting every day. It's 20 feet by 14 feet and the neighbors have been peering over the fence."
Overnight joint leader Cabrera-Bello fired a second-round 68 to continue his impressive start to the year.
"I am playing well, putting good, and putting the ball in play, hitting the fairways and so I'm feeling confident," he said.
"Pretty much I'm just happy with the way I'm playing with all of the clubs in the bag. There's nothing that I'm complaining about at the moment."
England's Danny Willett hit the round of the day with seven birdies and an eagle for a 63 to finish eight under par and a shot off the lead.
"Today I played nice, hit it a little closer and hit a few more fairways and rolled a few putts in," he said.
"I holed a wedge from 50 yards on eight (for eagle) which helps and the last 20-odd holes have been pretty good."
World number three Henrik Stenson missed the cut after shooting rounds of 74 and 72, the first time the Swede had failed to make the weekend in a European Tour event since October, 2012.
(Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Ed Osmond)