Rory McIlroy drives off the 14th tee in Abu Dhabi on Thursday

Rory McIlroy parred his opening 11 holes in Abu Dhabi before carding three late birdies

Rory McIlroy is three behind co-leader Tommy Fleetwood after shooting a bogey-free 69 on his return from injury at the Abu Dhabi Championship.

McIlroy, back from a three-month break used to help heal a rib injury, reached three under with three late birdies.

Defending champion Fleetwood shares the lead with Japan’s Hideto Tanihara.

England’s Ross Fisher is in a group of players one shot off the lead, while Scottish pair Richie Ramsay and Stephen Gallacher are on four under par.

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Fleetwood – who played in a group alongside McIlroy and world number one Dustin Johnson – started quickly with smart approaches to set up two birdies in his first four holes.

McIlroy has placed second at the tournament four times in the past seven years but was frustrated by a run of 11 straight pars before birdies arrived.

The world number 11 last played in October but looked well prepared as he found 17 greens in regulation.

“I’m really pleased with a bogey-free 69. I can’t really complain,” McIlroy, 28, told Sky Sports.

“It could have been a lot better than that but I tried to stay patient.

“Tommy obviously played very well and I was just trying to hang on to his coat-tails.

“I was proud of myself the way I hung in.”

‘The most prepared I’ve ever been’

McIlroy (right) with playing partners Tommy Fleetwood and Dustin Johnson on Thursday

McIlroy (right) resumed competitive action alongside Tommy Fleetwood and Dustin Johnson

McIlroy was badly hindered by a rib injury throughout the 2017 season but has indicated he will compete in at least seven events before April’s Masters, the only major he needs to complete a career grand slam.

“The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise,” he added. “I feel like I’m nearly the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been.”

Tanihara made birdie on his last hole to tie the lead with Fleetwood, a shot clear of Fisher, Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, Australia’s Sam Brazel and Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger.

World number one Johnson had to be content with a level-par 72, which included a bogey at his final hole after he drove into water.

Northern Ireland’s 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell, now 189th in the world rankings, shot an opening two-under 70 which included four birdies.

News Reporter

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