After 67, McIlroy just two off lead in Abu Dhabi

Rory McIlroy fired a 5-under 67 on Friday to move within two shots of the lead in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – He’s back.

Rory McIlroy returned a 5-under 67 in the second round of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship to banish the ghosts of 12 months ago, and most of the 2013 season.

The Northern Irishman is 7 under for 36 holes, just two shots off the lead held by Scotland’s Craig Lee and Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain. McIlroy would be joint leader if not for a double-bogey six at No. 6.

Exactly a year ago McIlroy was limping home with his pride severely damaged after a second successive 75 saw him miss the halfway cut. It took him most of the year to recover, albeit with a lot of off-course distractions too. Twelve months later and McIlroy looks like he might be about to start 2014 with a win.

“I don’t feel like I’ve struck the ball this well in a long time,” McIlroy said. “It’s gradually been coming. I’ve been working hard on all aspects of my game. I came here excited for the season, and I’m in with a chance to win going into the weekend.

“Coming off last year after 36 holes I was deflated. The week didn’t go how I imagined or how I planned.”

McIlroy’s only error came when he hit his 3-wood tee shot into a bush at the sixth, and had to take a penalty drop. Other than that he was back to his imperious best, as playing companion Phil Mickelson attested to.

“He’s really striking the ball well, and his game looks extremely sharp,” Mickelson said. “His irons were better today than they were yesterday, but his driving was impeccable the first two days.”

That’s more than can be said for Mickelson. He made the cut after a 2-under 70 to be 1 under for the tournament. However, there are still a lot of kinks in his game after an eight-week layoff.

“I had a much better day today, but my game is very rusty,” Mickelson said. “I had a good practice session and hit my irons a lot better today, but my short game wasn’t as sharp.

“I didn’t quite putt well. I’m really glad I made the cut and I have a chance these next two days. I feel I keyed in on something. The swing started to feel much better and I really need these two days to get my game sharp to start the year.

“If I can get hot with the putter I think I might have a good low round in me tomorrow. But, more than that, I need these two days of work.”

Lee took the early lead with a 5-under 67 to go with his first-round 68. The 36-year-old Scotsman is chasing his first European Tour win.

Cabrera-Bello held the outright lead at 10 under but dropped into a tie with Lee when he dropped a shot on his final hole, the par-4 ninth. The Spaniard fired a 68 and is looking for his third European Tour win after the 2009 Austrian Golf Open and 2012 Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

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