JORDAN SPIETH fell foul of a crackdown on slow play as a "masterclass" from Rory McIlroy ensured the world No 3 won their first duel of the year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
McIlroy had insisted he was not concerned about laying down a marker to Spieth after being drawn with the Masters and US Open champion, but the four-time major winner certainly made an impression with an opening 66.
"It was a masterclass, the Rory that I have seen win major championships," Spieth said after a birdie on the last ensured he finished just two shots behind his playing partner and four behind clubhouse leader Bryson DeChambeau, a 22-year-old amateur from the USA.
"It was a pretty unbelievable round on a very challenging golf course. If he keeps striking it like that, I'm going to have to make up for it somewhere else. Minus one or two short putts, which is mainly just rust, it felt like he was on his A game."
McIlroy had not played since winning the DP World Tour Championship in November, but the only evidence of rust were two three-putt bogeys, each of which he immediately followed with a brace of birdies.
"It was a great way to start the year," said McIlroy, who has finished second in Abu Dhabi four times in the last five years. "I felt in practice last week I was swinging well and I came back mentally fresh and excited to play again. I could not be happier.
"I drove the ball well and that's one of the secrets around this course because if you hit it into the rough, it's difficult just to reach the green. I missed a few putts but holed a few I probably shouldn't have so it all evens out."
Spieth, who started his year by shooting 30 under par to win the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii by eight shots, admitted his driving was "short and crooked" for most of the day, but was more concerned with receiving a "monitoring penalty" on the penultimate hole.
"It was a bit odd," said the world No 1, who will be fined £2,000 if he transgresses again. "I got a bad time on my putt on the eighth when they took us off the clock on that green and the guys behind us hadn't even reached the fairway on a par-5.
"I understand that if you are being timed and you are taking longer than the allotted time, you get a bad time. I understand the rule but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense when our group had caught up."
McIlroy sympathised with Spieth and felt officials should use "common sense" as they were not out of position, but that cut little ice with European Tour chief referee John Paramor.
"Pace of play on the European Tour is measured by whether a group keeps to the starting interval between groups, rather than if they are on the same hole, as it is in America," Paramor said. "Jordan was assessed a monitoring penalty after his putt on the eighth hole, which I advised him of as he walked to the ninth tee."