Rory McIlroy made a stunning start to the defence of his Race to Dubai title as a bogey-free 62 handed him a two-shot lead after day one of the inaugural Dubai Invitational.
The Northern Irishman was teeing it up for the first time since being presented with his fifth Harry Vardon Trophy at the DP World Tour Championship and he returned to the UAE looking for a sixth career win in Dubai, the place where he claimed his first nearly 15 years ago.
His nine birdies saw him lead the way from Germany’s Yannik Paul at Dubai Creek Resort, with South African Thriston Lawrence at six under.
Multiple DP World Tour winners and Ryder Cup stars Tommy Fleetwood and Thorbjørn Olesen were then four shots off the lead.
The 2023 season saw McIlroy win his first two Rolex Series titles while also finishing in the top 10 at three of the four Major Championships.
He said coming into this week that a fifth Major title was his main goal in 2024 but a sixth Race to Dubai triumph is also at the forefront of his mind as he chases down Colin Montgomerie’s record of eight.
“I didn’t expect that,” he said. “It didn’t feel quite as good as that the first couple of days when I was here and hitting balls and playing the course.
“It was nice to get a card in the hand again and sort of feel the competitive juices flowing.
“This is a nice week to do some extra practice and put some work in so that I feel a bit more ready not just for next week, but also going into the bulk of the season.
“I surprised myself a little bit but hopefully more of the same over the next few days.
“I think around the creek you have to miss it in the right spots. There’s some water here and there. I think I did a good job today of managing my misses and missing on the right side and when I did make a hit shot, I managed to take advantage of it.”
Paul set the early pace with an approach to inside five feet at the 11th and a gain after laying up on the 13th.
He dropped a shot at the next after leaving his ball in the bunker but holed from 19 feet at the 16th and left himself less than 10 feet at the 17th and 18th to make it a hat-trick and turn in 32.
McIlroy also started on the 10th and he put on an approach masterclass, putting his second shots inside 10 feet on the 11th, 15th, 17th and 18th to also turn in 32 and share the lead, the highlight being a smart shot from an awkward stance and lie on the 15th.
He led alone after holing a lengthy putt on the 1st but Paul hit back from 17 feet on the 2nd and reclaimed top spot as he took advantage of the short par-four 3rd.
McIlroy also made the most of the 3rd and got up and down on the par-five 4th, before Paul holed from the fringe at the 6th to join him at seven under.
Paul then parred his final three holes but McIlroy was not finished, leaving himself just five feet on the 7th and eight feet on the 9th to lead by two.
Lawrence was another player to start on the 10th and he picked up shots on the 11th, 14th, 18th, 1st, 3rd, 4th and 6th, making a bogey on the 2nd.
Englishman Fleetwood was bogey-free in his 66, while Olesen added an eagle and a bogey to four birdies in his round.
Fellow Dane Nicolai Højgaard, American Sean Crocker, South African Zander Lombard and Spaniard Adrian Otaegui were at four under.
In the team event, McIlroy and Abdulla Al Naboodah led the way at 13 under, three shots clear of Paul and JJ Dudum.
– Report from DP World Tour website
Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images