RORY McILROY emphatically lived up to his billing as pre-tournament favourite with a stunning opening round of 63 that left playing partner Tiger Woods in the shade in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
McIlroy carded seven birdies and an eagle at Emirates Golf Club to set the clubhouse target on nine under par, three shots ahead of defending champion Stephen Gallacher, France's Julien Quesne and South African Richard Sterne.
Woods, playing alongside Gallacher and McIlroy, carded nine straight pars to complete a four-under 68 which meant the marquee group were a combined 19 under par, with just one bogey – from Gallacher – between them.
"It was good," McIlroy said with considerable understatement.
"It was really nice. I played really well from tee to green, drove the ball well again; I think I only missed a couple of fairways and only missed one green where I had to really get it up and down.
"I took advantage of how I am driving the ball and just need to do more of the same the next three days."
Asked how close he was to his best, the two-time major winner added: "It's close, obviously. This year I've shot a couple of good rounds. This is a little lower than I went in Abu Dhabi and I feel very comfortable with my game."
Woods began his 2014 campaign in the Farmers Insurance Open last week, but carded a third round of 79 at Torrey Pines – a venue where he has won eight times – to miss the unusual 54-hole cut.
The world number one insisted his game was "just a fraction off" and demonstrated that with a number of wayward drives, but made birdies on the three par fives on the back nine and picked up another shot on the 15th to reach the turn in four under.
"He's a true pro, he knows there are no pictures on a scorecard," McIlroy said of his Nike stablemate.
"He was hitting it a lot better at the end of the round but to shoot the score he did on our front nine was a good effort."
Woods added: "I played alright today. I probably could have got a couple more out of it.
"I didn't hit a bad putt today which was nice, it was just sometimes the grain grabbed it pretty hard at the end."
The 38-year-old revealed he has been working on making a shorter backswing with coach Sean Foley due to the numerous knee operations he has endured over the years.
"I've always played my best from a shorter position," he added.
"Looking back at my younger days on tour it was even shorter than it is now, the only difference is I can't wheel on it like I used to.
"I used to snap the knee at the end to get the power, if I did that now I'd destroy the knee just like I did before. That's one of the reasons why I've had so many operations on it."
Gallacher hailed a "sublime" display from McIlroy, but was also delighted to begin his title defence with a 66 that featured an eagle on the par-five 18th and a chip-in for birdie on the fifth.
"Me and Tiger had a couple of holes where we had great saves of par but it was one of those days where we took advantage of the conditions, it was quite benign," Gallacher said.