Rory McIlroy had Open champion Phil Mickelson reaching for the superlatives after storming into contention for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Friday.
Mickelson had a front-row seat as McIlroy covered the back nine in 31 for a round of 67 which left him seven under par and just two shots behind halfway leaders Craig Lee and Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
“The back nine was really impressive, a beautiful nine holes of golf,” said five-time major winner Mickelson, who returned a 70 to lie one under. “He is really striking the ball well. His game looks really sharp and his driving was impeccable.”
It was all a far cry from the same event 12 months ago, when McIlroy’s multi-million pound switch to Nike was greeted with fireworks and fizzled out with a missed cut.
“Coming off the last green last year I was deflated to say the least,” admitted McIlroy, who endured a turbulent 2013 before finally claiming his first win of the season in the Australian Open in December.
McIlroy has been delighted with his long game.
“Standing there 30 yards ahead of everyone else is nice,” the former world number one said. “When you are confident with the driver it takes a lot of pressure off your game.
“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.
“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.”
Michael Hoey and Paul McGinley are five behind the leaders on four under par.
Darren Clarke, Gareth Maybin and Damien McGrane also made it through to the weekend.