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The start to the calendar year for Rory McIlroy on Thursday at the Abu Dhabi Championship was hot even by his lofty standards. McIlroy has finished in the top five of 11 of his last 12 first events of a year (including every year since 2014), and in Round 1 in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, he fired an 8-under 64, which is his best first round of a year ever

The 64 puts him one up over Tyrrell Hatton and two over Fabrizio Zanotti. He beat playing partner — and the No. 3 player in the world — Justin Thomas by nine. And he did it with a perfectly clean card. Birdie at the first. A 32 going out, a 32 coming home. It could not have been a more perfect start for somebody looking to win for the first time in 14 months and break a run of seven (!!) third-place (or better) finishes in Abu Dhabi without a win.

“I felt like I drove the ball well for the most part,” McIlroy said. “Distance control was really good. I think I started off really well. Hit a lot of nice iron shots. But honestly it was probably the best I’ve putted these greens in Abu Dhabi probably in my whole career. I’ve shot some really good scores here but I held some really good ones today. And I’ve always struggled to read them here, but I sort of got my eye in early and kept me going.”

This is fairly common territory for McIlroy, who has absolutely thrived over the course of his career at this golf course. It’s not unusual for him to be sniffing a lead here. What is unusual, though, is the path he took to get here following some fairly mediocre play (especially by his standards) to close out 2020.

Following a BMW Championship in August where he finished T12 and said he found something, he went on a nice run with three top 10s in his last five events (including two at major championships). McIlroy said on Thursday that he didn’t want to quell the momentum so he played and practiced a lot during the two-month break between that November Masters and this Abu Dhabi Championship.

“I didn’t really take much time off after Augusta,” he said. “I sat at home for maybe three or four days and was like ‘I just need to get out there and sort of keep this going.’ Played quite a bit over the Christmas break and practiced quite a bit. Felt maybe as sharp as I’ve ever done coming into the start of the season. It’s paid off early.”

Whether it keeps paying off remains to be seen, but normally when McIlroy asserts himself as the frontrunner early at an event, everybody else is just playing for prize money. 

McIlroy’s sharp start was foreshadowed a bit when a video emerged on this week of him hitting majestic shots into the Abu Dhabi skyline, and of course all of us on social media freaked out and shared it as quickly as we possibly could. This is the essence of Rory. From the sound of the strike to the flight of the ball to the intoxicating rhythm of the video. It’s pure fun. And when it translates over to the course like it did on Thursday, it’s pure terror for the rest of the field.