DUBAI: Rory McIlroy confirmed he is back on top form with a stunning 63 as the first round of the $2.5 million Dubai Desert Classic got underway on Thursday with a barrage of birdies.
Firing seven birdies and an eagle, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland continued his storming start to the season which saw him take second place at Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, his first tournament since winning the Australian Open in early December.
It was a flawless display of golf that left playing partner Tiger Woods in the shade, although the world number one was happy to settle for a four-under 68 in what is also his second tournament of the year.
His opener last week at Torrey Pines, San Diego ended in him firing a 79 on Saturday to miss the secondary cut at the Farmers Insurance Open.
The third member of the group, defending champion Stephen Gallacher of Scotland, was also high up the early leaderboard with a 66.
With playing conditions ideal at the par-72 Majlis Course, hosting the 25th anniversary of a tournament which blazed new paths for the European Tour and brought the Gulf region onto the golfing map, scoring was understandably low.
Playing down the easier back nine to start with, McIlroy, on the rebound after a frustrating 2013, had five birdies in seven holes from the 12th to briefly take the lead at the turn.
Minutes later Frenchman Julien Quesne pitched a sand wedge into the 17th green from 105 yards and it spun back into the hole for eagle which eased him out to six under.
But a birdie at the second and a 10-foot putt for eagle at the third saw McIlroy back on the pace. He then sunk a 15-footer at the par-three seventh to get to nine under and only Quesne was within three strokes of his pace-setting at that stage.
The Ulsterman parred his way in from there, coming up just short with a 15-footer for birdie at the last.
Woods, meanwhile, started well with four birdies down the back nine and while he struggled for accuracy off the tee on the way in, his short game was good enough to avoid any bogeys.
In-form South African Richard Sterne also came in early with a 66, while joining Woods on 68 were Scotland’s Paul Lawrie and Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark.
Among the starters in the afternooon were South African veteran and record three-time winner of the Dubai Desert Classic Ernie Els playing alongside world number three Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark.