Donald leads the European Tour's season-ending DP World Tour Championship after opening the £6million event with a seven under par 65. McIlroy is only one stroke back, however, and that after driving in the water on the long final hole and having to settle for a par there and an inward half of 31.
It sets up the possibility of the world's top two players having a shoot-out at the weekend. McIlroy, who is in joint second place with Scot Marc Warren and Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, said: "There's always a buzz playing in the last group and if I play well again hopefully we'll get a chance."
Not that the number one spot or the Tour's Order of Merit title would be at stake. The 23-year-old has huge leads in both and has already emulated Donald's feat last year of topping the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic. If the Englishman can win, though, both would end 2012 with four victories - the big difference being that one of McIlroy's was his second major.
On the possible head-to-head between the pair Donald said: "I'd love the challenge. It would be fun for us, fun for the fans and obviously fun for TV. It would be a great way to end the year."
The 34-year-old packed his seven birdies into 10 holes from the fifth, and commented: "That middle part I really swung the ball well and made a lot of putts - I felt like I couldn't miss.
"You always feel different the week after winning. You just feel like you have that little extra pep in your step and there's a bit more confidence flowing through you for sure - especially winning by five as I did."
Last season third place was good enough for him to hold off McIlroy in the "Race to Dubai", but now he has only the tournament to think about.
"There was a lot more at stake last year, so obviously I felt a little bit more pressure. This time it definitely feels a little bit easier."
Six players are tied for fifth - 2009 winner Lee Westwood, Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer, Padraig Harrington, Richie Ramsay, Louis Oosthuizen and Fredrik Andersson Hed. Justin Rose is among those only one further back, but Ian Poulter is down in joint 42nd after a 72 and Sergio Garcia, playing for the first time since eye surgery to correct an astigmatism, shot 73.