The big crowds at Abu Dhabi Golf Club were rewarded with some low scoring from the group containing the defending champion, the four-time major winner and the world No 1.
Marquee trio of Fleetwood, McIlroy and Johnson live up to hype at HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship
Rightly billed the marquee match at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA, the must-see three-ball duly delivered.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson shot a 64. Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy carded a 66. Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood posted a 68, on his birthday.
Followed around the National Course on Friday by a large and loud gallery, the trio put on a show in the sun. They combined for one eagle, 17 birdies and a solitary bogey, when Fleetwood’s lengthy par-putt on 16 horseshoed the hole.
Europe’s reigning No 1 was all smiles at the next, though, after the grandstand on 17 serenaded him as he reached the green. Signalling his gratitude, he promptly rolled in the putt for birdie. It elicited one of the biggest cheers of the day, and smiles all round from the players and their caddies.
“I think the moment was made before that putt,” Fleetwood said. “I had ‘Happy Birthday’ sang to me twice, so it was one of them occasions.”
Wasn’t it just. The roll around the capital course concluded with Fleetwood on 10-under par and in tied-third, two shots off midway leader Thomas Pieters, while McIlroy was one back and Johnson a single stroke behind him.
No wonder they all seemed delighted post-round. Fleetwood even more so, once McIlroy interrupted his television interview to present the birthday boy with a cake containing three candles.
“Three wishes?” enquired the new 27-year-old, when instructed by McIlroy to blow them out. “I don’t have three wishes.”
Perhaps the only one he needed had already been granted. In October, Fleetwood’s first child, Franklin, was born.
“Nice to wake up on my birthday with a son. Hadn’t done that yet,” he said, before confirming the night ahead would be a relatively quiet affair.
“I don't think there will be that much celebrating going on. Celebrate with some water, I think.”
Probably a wise choice, given he has a tournament to defend. Fleetwood conceded he wasn’t as on-song as he had been on Day One, when his 66 sealed a share of the overnight lead.
But five birdies and that solitary dropped shot on Friday left him in a strong position still. In the end, he was happy to just “hang in there”.
“I wasn't quite on it today, so it was a bit more of an effort for me,” Fleetwood said. “Dustin shot the most stress-free 64 you'll ever see and Rory just shot the most stress-free 66 you'll ever see. Those two played great.
“You can't win the tournament after two days; you can only play yourself out of it. The finish has put me that little bit closer on the weekend, and tomorrow is always an important day to stay in it and try and make a move. Just got to keep doing the right things.”
Ditto McIlroy. The former world No 1 is contesting his first tournament back after shutting down his 2017 season early, back in October.
However, the rest and rehabilitation from a persistent rib injury has obviously done him good. A second successive bogey-free round included four birdies and concluded with a crowd-pleasing eagle.
“It's massive,” McIlroy said. “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.
“A 66 was good. There weren’t that many fireworks apart from the putt on the last.”
There could be some to come.
“The first two days I've been really, really happy with, played really solid,” McIlroy said. “Today I gave myself a lot of chances. Probably could have been a bit better again, but I'm right in the mix after two days. I'm really happy in that position.
"Feel like if I get off to a hot start tomorrow before the leaders go off, and all of a sudden you're one back or tied for the lead, then you're really in the tournament.”
Johnson probably feels the same. Last year on debut, he opened with an even-par 72 before pushing Fleetwood close come Sunday. Eventually, he finished one shot shy in joint second. This time, Johnson hit the joint-lowest score of the day and thus remains in the hunt.
After registering four birdies on both nines, the American said: “It was a pretty easy 64. Had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday. I've got a lot of confidence and just need to go out tomorrow and put up a low one again.
“I'm only four back going into the weekend, so we've still got 36 holes to go. I just need to play some good, solid golf and get myself right back in there for Sunday.”