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Rory McIlroy takes route 66 to underline his title threat in Abu Dhabi

McIlroy had not played competitively since October until this week.

Rory McIlroy saved the best until last to surge into contention for his first win since September 2016 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy carded four birdies and an eagle from 25 feet on the 18th in a second round of 66 to reach nine under par, three shots behind Ryder Cup partner Thomas Pieters.

Leader Pieters had earlier holed out from a bunker on the ninth – his final hole – for one of his seven birdies in a bogey-free 65, with Spain’s Jorge Campillo his nearest challenger after going one better with a 64.

Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood sat two shots off the pace alongside Ross Fisher and Alexander Levy after celebrating his 27th birthday with a 68, while playing partner and world number one Dustin Johnson featured two strokes further back after a brilliant 64.

Playing his first event since calling an early end to his injury-plagued and winless season in October last year, McIlroy has yet to drop a single shot at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he has four second-place finishes, two thirds and a fifth in his last eight starts.

“I felt like I gave myself tons of chances on the back nine and it was sort of difficult to convert them,” McIlroy said.

“But 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.

“It’s massive. Five shots to make up over the weekend is quite a lot, especially with a bunched leaderboard, so to cut that deficit to three, I feel so much closer to the lead.

“I hit the ball very well. I drove it well. I hit most of my iron shots very well. I gave myself plenty of chances, and that’s what I’m going to have to do over the next couple of days, as well, if I want to try and win this tournament.”

Pieters, who won a record four points and all three of his matches alongside McIlroy on his Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine, told Sky Sports: “We have a decent game plan. I’ve done well here in the past (fourth in 2015 and second in 2016) and it suits me. We hit driver wherever we can and the rest of it is good ball-striking and going at a couple flags with wedges when you have them.”

Two-time winner Paul Casey, Bernd Wiesberger and Sam Brazel finished the day alongside McIlroy on nine under par, while Justin Rose – who has recorded 10 straight top-10 finishes – birdied the last to make the cut on the mark of two under.

“I know this course very well,” Casey said. “It seems like I’ve got good memories of every hole so it’s about drawing from those past experiences.

“I suppose ultimately it means nothing in the grand scheme of things because you can’t control what other guys do, but the biggest motivation is that (Martin) Kaymer has won here three times and I’ve got two. I see him in Arizona all the time and he doesn’t let me forget it!”

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