Rory McIlroy shot a seven-under-par 65 for a two-shot first round lead in the European Tour’s season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai on Thursday.
Race to Dubai leader Collin Morikawa did his chances of becoming the first American ever to become the European Tour No.1 no harm when he began his campaign with a solid four-under-par 68.
McIlroy, who did not have the best of seasons even though he won twice on the PGA Tour, is too far behind in the Race to Dubai to secure the European No.1 crown.
Before the championship, he said he was focused completely on winning the tournament, and he showed his intent on the opening day.
In former world No.1 McIlroy's 10 starts on the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates, the Northern Irishman has two wins and has never finished outside the top-20.
Thursday's score was also his lowest opening round in the championship on the golf course on which he feels more comfortable than his living room recliner.
Dane Joachim Hansen opened with a five-under-par 67 to share second alongside South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Finland’s Tapio Pulkkanen.
Hansen was 85th in the Race to Dubai with slim chances of getting into the tournament (only top-53 qualified this year) one week ago before he won last week’s Aviv Championship in the adjacent Fire course.
Morikawa was tied for fifth place with nine other players, including Spain’s Sergio Garcia, Germany’s Martin Kaymer and Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre.
American Billy Horschel, who is just 236 points behind Morikawa and has the best chance in the field to catch him, struggled to a two-over 74 with just one late birdie coming on the 17th hole.
McIlroy started with an unlikely birdie on the first with a 24-feet putt, and then added an eagle on the par-5 second where he smashed his second shot from 271 yards to 13 feet.
And with his wedges on song, birdies kept coming at regular intervals until the 10th hole.
But he then endured a seven-hole stretch of pars, before finishing with a birdie on the 18th.
- 'Bee in a tree' -
"I’ve been coming back here now for 12 years and time flies by. I have a lot of experience around this place, a lot of great memories and memories of great shots and great putts,” said world No.8 McIlroy, winner of the championship in 2012 and 2015.
On his brilliant second shot on the second hole, McIlroy said: "Honestly, all I was trying to do was get it in the front bunker. I didn’t think I had enough club to get it over, but I absolutely flushed it.
"It was like a bee in the tree. I was trying to hit a high draw to the right edge of the green. I was prepared for an uphill bunker shot, but as soon as I hit it, I felt like it might have a chance to cover it. It was nice to hole the putt.”
Morikawa was five-under-par through 16 holes, but three-putted for a bogey from 54 feet on the par-3 17th, and could not take advantage of the par-5 18th.
"It was pretty solid throughout. Obviously, the two bogeys were a little unforced, but I made a few birdies out there and kept the momentum going and it was a good way to start the first round out here," said Morikawa.
The English trio of Tyrrell Hatton, Paul Casey and Matt Fitzpatrick, who are among five players who can deny Morikawa, each started with two-under-par rounds 70 to be tied 20th.
Australia’s Min Woo Lee shot an even-par 72 and was tied 36th.