Rory McIlroy had Open champion Phil Mickelson reaching for the superlatives after storming into contention for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Mickelson had a front-row seat as McIlroy covered the back nine in 31 for a round of 67, which left him seven under par and just two shots behind halfway leaders Craig Lee and Rafael Cabrera-Bello.

"The back nine was really impressive, a beautiful nine holes of golf," said five-time major winner Mickelson, who returned a 70 to lie one under. "He is really striking the ball well. His game looks really sharp and his driving was impeccable."

It was all a far cry from the same event 12 months ago, when McIlroy's controversial multi-million pound switch to Nike was greeted with fireworks and fizzled out with a missed cut after consecutive rounds of 75.

"Coming off the last green last year I was deflated to say the least," admitted McIlroy, who endured a turbulent 2013 before finally claiming his first win of the season in the Australian Open in December.

The 24-year-old also proposed to girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki in Sydney on New Year's Eve and joked he had been hanging around tennis players too much after grunting with the effort of a recovery shot from the heavy rough.

That was the result of a rare wayward drive - another into a bush cost him a double-bogey on the sixth - but McIlroy has otherwise been delighted with his long game.

"Standing there 30 yards ahead of everyone else is nice," the former world number one said. "When you are confident with the driver it takes a lot of pressure off your game.

"I got a few putts to drop on the back nine which was nice and I feel like I have a great chance of winning.

"It would be nice to win your first start of the season rather than your last start. It's exactly what I wanted. It's a great way to test your game under pressure. With a strong start to the year you can really get some momentum."

Lee had set the clubhouse target on nine under par after adding a 67 to his opening 68, the 36-year-old looking for his first European Tour win after losing out to Thomas Bjorn in a play-off for the Omega European Masters last September.

The round of the day came from England's Danny Willett, who carded seven birdies and an eagle in his 63 to finish eight under par and continue a brilliant fightback.

Willett was five over par after 10 holes on Thursday, but played the remaining eight in four under and is a total of 13 under for his last 26 holes.

England's Tommy Fleetwood made the most of his chance to impress Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, although he may not get the full benefit of his flawless 65.

As well as McGinley, Fleetwood was playing with fellow Nike professional Thorbjorn Olesen and the pair turned up in almost identical clothes, much to McGinley's confusion.

"He kept saying good shot but he never knew which one it was," joked Fleetwood, who won the Johnnie Walker Championship at Ryder Cup venue Gleneagles last year, four days before the qualifying race started, and was third in the Volvo Golf Champions last week.

"He kept throwing a name out there and we're like 'No, no, Paul, it was the other one.'

"I played with him in Holland last year as well and scrapped it around there for two days so to finally play some good golf is good.

"It's every single European golfer's dream to play in a Ryder Cup, you watch it every year on TV and get so motivated by it you want to go out and fight someone when you're watching it.

"It's the best sporting event in the world but at the moment it's one thing I am trying to keep at the back of my mind."

Early contender McGinley hit a level-par 72 to sit five shots off the lead on four under alongside Michael Hoey, who shot 71.

Damien McGrane is next best of the Irish after posting a level-par 72 to remain on two under. 

Darren Clarke shot a three-under 69 after posting two over in the opening round, while Gareth Maybin hit 70 to join Clarke on one under.

Padraig Harrington went around in 74 to post one over and misses the weekend action by one shot, while Simon Thornton hit a disappointing 75 to finish on two over.

Peter Lawrie, Shane Lowry and Kevin Phelan all missed the level-par cut for the weekend.

Meanwhile, Sergio Garcia was again at the centre of attention.

A day after labelling the rough at Abu Dhabi Golf Club "dangerous", video emerged overnight of a possible rules infraction during Garcia's opening round of 76.

Footage showed the Spaniard tapping down something on the line of his putt on the 18th green, which would have been in breach of the rules if it was a spike mark.

However, the world number ten and European Tour chief referee John Paramor went out to the 18th green on Friday morning and Paramor was satisfied with Garcia's explanation that he had tapped down a repaired pitch mark.

Coincidentally, England's Simon Dyson has returned to action in Abu Dhabi for the first time since being handed a suspended two-month ban from the European Tour for tapping down a spike mark.