By Matt Smith
ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy overcame a slow start to shoot a five-under 67 in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on Thursday, two strokes behind surprise leader Thomas Pieters.
McIlroy finished second at the UAE capital's tournament in three of the past four years, while playing partner Rickie Fowler was making his Middle East debut.
American Fowler acted as a pace-setter and ended the day level with McIlroy.
Despite a first-hole birdie McIlroy, 25, struggled for rhythm on what is the season opener for many of the European Tour's prominent players, finding sand as a bogey at his eighth hole left him on par at the turn.
Fowler, a year older than the Northern Irishman, sunk birdies at his sixth and eighth holes and picked up another shot at 10 to move three stokes clear of McIlroy.
The world number one's body language, hands on hips and head down after missing a birdie chance on the same hole, betrayed his frustrations as he struggled to spark his game into life.
"He (Fowler) was kicking me on today," McIlroy told reporters. "I didn't want to let him get too far ahead. It looked like he was going to shoot quite a low one, I was in neutral and needed to get something going."
That moment came at his 12th after he drove his ball to the bunker edge for a tricky second shot to the green, but a precision wedge while straddling the sand gave him a 12-foot birdie putt he duly converted.
"I was just trying to get it anywhere on the green - it was one of those ones where it just came out right," said McIrloy.
"It's good because it's not something you ever practice, it's all feel and instinct. It was the first one I saw go in for a while so it got me going and gave me a bit of confidence on the greens."
Emboldened, the four-time major winner picked up four more shots in the next five holes, all by sinking putts from 10 feet or more as midday approached and the temperature soared.
McIlroy's surge reeled in his playing partner Fowler, despite the world number 10 also making four birdies on the back nine, and a bogey at the last left them level for the round.
They trail Belgian Pieters (67), plus South Africa's Branden Grace and France's Gregory Bourdy who both carded 66.
(Reporting by Matt Smith; editing by Martyn Herman)