Steady start for Tiger Woods

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The journey to the Middle East, preceded by a seven-week offseason and plenty of good vibes about his game, did nothing to change a frequent irritant in Tiger Woods' game: putting.

Woods needed 34 putts at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and made just two birdies in an opening-round 70 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Playing in the same group, Rory McIlroy did not hit the ball nearly as well as Woods, but managed seven birdies to shoot 5-under-par 67 and tie Robert Karlsson for the first-round lead.

Jean-Baptiste Gonnet,
Gareth Maybin and Richard Finch were 1 shot back.

"It felt the same as it had from Oz [Australia] to the World Challenge to here," Woods said of the most recent tournaments he played before taking a break. "I controlled my ball all day and just had a hard time getting a feel for these greens. They are grainy enough to where I just didn't quite read them right, and I hit them good, and then the grain would take it, not take it. It was just difficult.

"I think my speed was off because I just didn't quite have it right."

Otherwise, Woods looked solid, hitting 17 of 18 greens in regulation, 10 of 14 fairways, without making a bogey. His only missed green came at his very first hole, a par-5, where he missed from the rough after hitting his drive too far and into a bunker.

Woods is making his first appearance in the Abu Dhabi Championship, the first of three tournaments that make up the European Tour's Gulf swing, and is making his season debut outside of the United States for the first time in his career.

McIlroy, the reigning U.S. Open champion, and No. 1-ranked Luke Donald played with Woods in the marquee group, teeing off at 7:40 a.m. local time. Donald carded a 1-under-par 71.

McIlroy, 22, got off to a strong start, with birdies on three of his first four holes on the back side and turned in 34. He made three birdies on the front and had just two bogeys overall.

The Northern Irishman did it despite hitting just six fairways and only 12 greens. But he needed only 25 putts -- nine fewer than Woods.

"It's a nice way to start the competitive season, I suppose," McIlroy said. "I didn't feel like I played that good. I definitely didn't strike the ball as good as I have been the last couple of weeks.

"I think it's just because your first competitive round of the season, card in your hand, you can get a little bit tentative or a little apprehensive. I was able to manage my way around the golf course and ended up shooting 5 under."

McIlroy was joined by Karlsson, 42, an 11-time winner on the European Tour from Sweden who also plays the PGA Tour.

"I don't think we are going to play many tournaments this year with a stronger field than this,'' said Karlsson, noting that the top four players in the world are entered. "So it's a pleasure to play here, and the golf course is set up fantastic. It's a difficult test."

Sergio Garcia (71) and Jose Manuel Lara (70) each had a hole-in-one on the par-3 12th hole.

K.J. Choi, Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington joined the group at 71.

Second-ranked Lee Westwood (72) and defending champion Martin Kaymer (77) got off to poor starts and never challenged for the lead.

Westwood had four bogeys to go with two birdies on the front nine. Kaymer, who shot 24-under 264 last year to win the tournament for the third time, started with a double-bogey when his drive went out of bounds.

Bob Harig is ESPN.com's senior golf writer. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.