Rory McIlroy gave the world's top three golfers a tough act to follow when he opened the Omega Dubai Desert Classic with a seven-under-par 65 today.
And it could have been even better for the 21-year-old, whose only European Tour victory so far came on the same Emirates course two years ago.
McIlroy had five successive birdies around the turn and was seven under with three to play, but three-putted the short seventh before coming straight back with yet another birdie.
The Irishman, with a chance this week to move up from seventh in the world to a career-high fourth, completed his round just as Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Tiger Woods set off on their eagerly-awaited showdown.
It is the first time in 17 years that the sport's three leading lights lined up in a regular event on the circuit, but Woods started with a bogey five after going over the green and missing from inside six feet.
The American has fallen from first to third and has not won a title for almost 15 months, but he lifted the trophy on his last visit to Dubai three years ago and was successful in 2006 as well.
He cannot overtake Westwood on the rankings this weekend, but Kaymer can with a top-two finish and was the favourite of the three following his eight-shot win in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago.
McIlroy, who opened with a 64 two years ago and led from start to finish, was two in front of Spain's Sergio Garcia and three clear of a group which included his 2007 Walker Cup team-mate Danny Willett.
Garcia's ninth place in Qatar last week was his best finish for almost a year, but he probably needs top two this weekend to climb back into the world's top 64 and qualify for the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Arizona later this month.
What McIlroy would have given for David Howell's shot on the 186-yard seventh.
The Englishman, whose 1999 victory in the event came at the Dubai Creek course, fired a hole-in-one to earn himself first-class tickets from the tournament's airline sponsors.
McIlroy said: "Today was good - I really hit a lot of good iron shots. I had a putt for another 64, but I will take 65 in those conditions every day.
"I was nervous teeing off and I want that every time I play. With the 'Big Three' paired together I've tried to go in under the radar."
Woods also missed the green at the relatively easy second, but this time got his chip much closer and saved his par. He was, however, already eight behind McIlroy.
Westwood and Kaymer both started with a pair of par figures, while Garcia signed for a 67 and with no bogeys on his card it was another step forward on the comeback trail for the 31-year-old.