Tiger Woods closed with a spectacular eagle, but was still outshone by 21-year-old Rory McIlroy and out-scored by Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer in Dubai today.
McIlroy, whose only European Tour victory so far came on the same Emirates course two years ago, began the Omega Desert Classic with a seven-under-par 65 to be two ahead of a back-to-form Sergio Garcia.
Woods, without a win for almost 15 months, was struggling down at one over with one to play, but hit his second to the 564-yard last over the lake to within five feet of the flag.
Playing partners Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, the two players who have overtaken him on the rankings, both shot 69, Westwood taking twice as many strokes as Woods on the 18th.
McIlroy had already posted his eight birdies by the time the "Big Three" teed off and he would have matched his 2009 start if only he had avoided a three-putt bogey at the short seventh.
Woods was quickly in trouble, missing par putts of under six feet on the first and fourth. Then, after coming back with a birdie at the sixth, he dumped his tee shot into the lake on the next.
It cost him a third bogey and although there were birdies to come at the 10th and 11th he immediately followed them with a double bogey six, driving into sand and hitting his third over the green.
A two-putt birdie at the long 13th repaired some of the damage and his playing of the 18th will leave him thinking he can still get into contention for a third victory at the event.
Westwood, who missed the cut in Qatar last week and was the outsider of the trio in the eyes of the bookmakers, did not drop a stroke until his pitch to the last only just made it over the lake and he needed three more from there.
Kaymer, an eight-stroke winner in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago and runner-up to Woods on the American's last appearance in the event in 2008, had the most birdies - six - but also bogeyed the short 15th and had an unfortunate double bogey on the ninth.
The German's approach, like that of defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez and Alvaro Quiros, hit the hospitality units right of the green and shot across into the water.
McIlroy had five-successive birdies around the turn and was seven under with three to play, but three-putted the seventh before responding with yet another birdie.
The Northern Irishman, with a chance this week to move up from seventh in the world to a career-high fourth, 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."
Garcia's ninth place in Qatar last week was his best finish for almost a year, but he still needs first or second place on Sunday to climb into the game's top 64 in time for the Accenture Match Play in Arizona later this month.
What Woods and 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, holed-in-one to earn himself first-class tickets from Emirates airline.
Woods said of his eagle: "I had 254 (yards) to the hole and had to take something off it. I threw it up in the air and it was perfect."
As for his overall performance, "scratchy" was his one-word description before adding: "I started putting awful and I struggled with my trajectory."
Westwood blamed a loss of concentration for his sloppy finish, while Kaymer said his round would have been "fantastic" but for his unlucky break on the ninth.
McIlroy remained two clear, but Spaniard Pablo Martin had a hat-trick of birdies from the 15th to join compatriot Garcia and would be tied for the lead if he could match Woods' three at the last.
Far from emulating Woods, Martin copied Westwood by running up a bogey six and so instead had to settle for a 68, but South African Thomas Aiken also reached five under after 17 and a closing par left him alongside Garcia in second place.