Pieters leads, McIlroy and Johnson in contention in Abu Dhabi

Josh CHARLES
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Thomas Pieters of Belgium plays during round two of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson both made their moves on Friday, but they were left chasing the long-hitting Thomas Pieters of Belgium at the halfway stage of the $3 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

The 25-year-old Belgian, who was a star for the European Ryder Cup team in their loss to the US at Hazeltine, made seven birdies in his bogey-free round of 65 to climb on top of the leaderboard at 12 under par.

Spain's Jorge Campillo added a 64 to his opening-round 69 to be one behind Pieters, while Alexander Levy of France (65) and England's Ross Fisher (67) were in tied third place at 10-under 134 alongside overnight joint leader Tommy Fleetwood (68), who turned 27 on Friday.

After a disappointing opening round of even-par 72, world number one Johnson bounced back with a brilliant bogey-free round of eight-under-par 64.

McIlroy is yet to make a bogey after two rounds and an eagle on his finishing hole catapulted him to nine-under for the tournament with a round of 66.

Pieters, ranked 40th in the world, finished second here in 2016 but missed the cut last year. However, he once again showed his love for the National course at Abu Dhabi Golf Club with a round that finished on a high note -– a chipped-in birdie on the ninth from the greenside bunker.

"It was nice to hole one on the last after two terrible shots. Ball-striking was good, but the rest of it was decent today," said Pieters.

"I mean, I hit most of the middle of the greens. If I had a wedge, I went at the flag and I think I got up-and-down or made birdie with a wedge in my hand three or four times. It wasn't really that fancy but a very good round."

- 'Pretty easy' -

McIlroy, returning to professional golf after a lay-off of nearly 100 days, gave himself plenty of chances in his first 17 holes, but converted only four birdies. His spirits were clearly lifted when he poured in his eagle putt from 20 feet on the last.

"It was a nice way to finish. Felt like I gave myself tons of chances on the back nine. I always struggle to read these greens, I feel like I'm hitting good putts and they are just sliding by the edges," said McIlroy, who has slipped to 11th in the world rankings.

"But it was nice, I stayed patient and feel like I got what I deserved on the last for staying so patient and it was nice to finish with a three, leapfrog a few guys and get myself into contention for the weekend."

Johnson was pleased with his effort, especially after the even-par 72 round on Thursday.

"It was pretty easy for a 64. I did everything really well. I drove it well. I hit a lot of really good iron shots. Hit a lot of good putts that didn't go in the hole from pretty close range, but all day, I gave myself really good chances for birdies. It was pretty stress-free," said Johnson who made three birdies in his last four holes.

The cut fell at two-under par 142. Among the notables who will miss weekend play are European Ryder Cup veterans Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, who missed by one shot

World number six Justin Rose made a birdie on the 18th to finish on two under par.