However, yesterday the world No 2 was glancing at the only man above him in the rankings simply through his rear-view mirror, having opened his DP World Tour Championship account with a supreme seven-under par 65, heading the field by one shot.
Donald, who on Sunday passes to McIlroy the Race to Dubai crown he collected last season – the Northern Irishman secured the title two weeks ago in Singapore – signed off a blemish-free scorecard, with his young challenger providing the stardust in a trio one stroke behind.
Donald began the 2011 event “with a target on my back” having come into the week hunting both trophies, but attributed yesterday’s success to the change in circumstances.
“Definitely the feeling today was different on the first tee than a year ago,” the Englishman said. “There was a lot more at stake for me last season, so I felt a bit more pressure.
“The goal was the same: come here and try to win the tournament. So this week, it feels like I’m just playing for the tournament. It definitely feels a little bit easier.”
The sight of the world’s two best players at the top of the leaderboard will no doubt warm the hearts of the European Tour, who have dismissed the notion this week seems something of an anticlimax, because of McIlroy’s inconvenient mastery.
Donald did not choose to cast his mind towards Sunday’s final round, but when he was asked how he would feel going head-to-head with the two-time major champion, it appeared to stoke his fires.
“I’d love the challenge,” he said. “Rory is No 1 in the world, and it would be fun for us.
“It would be a great way to end the year, but it’s a long way to go. There’s no point thinking ahead to Sunday; just take it as it comes and hopefully I’ll continue to hit the ball as well as I am and make some putts like I did today.”
For McIlroy, a slow start preceded a back nine birdie blitz, the new European No 1 firing five from the 10th to post a six-under par 66.
He wanted to add a sixth on the par-five 18th to ensure he went out today alongside Donald but, having found water with his drive, scrambled to make par.
“There’s a lot of golf left to play but I’m off to a good start,” he said.
“Having [the Race to Dubai] wrapped up, I can go out there and play without thinking about it.
“It’s definitely a nice thing to not have that on your shoulders. But I’ve still got a lot of motivation. I want to try and finish what has been a great season in great style. I want to pick up two trophies – I’ve given myself a good chance after today.”
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Marc Warren join McIlroy in second place, although in the group one shot further back lurk some dangerous contenders.
Padraig Harrington, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen – men sharing five major championship trophies – make up half the throng on five-under par, with Lee Westwood, the winner of both the inaugural Dubai World Championship and Race to Dubai, also carding a 67.
“I played well and gave myself a lot of chances,” said Westwood. “But I still missed maybe four putts I should have holed.
“I hit the ball close a lot and if you do that then you’re going to miss a few and take a few.
“But I did a good job pretty much all day and five-under is a good start.”
Harrington, whose expectations for this week were low following a few frustrating days of practice, said: “I shot 67 doing handstands. A lot of times this year I’ve been really confident going into the tournament and then nothing pleases me.
“Today I wasn’t very confident, so anything was going to keep me happy out there.
“I missed an awful lot of chances to still shoot five-under. It just matters that you’re still in the tournament, so I’m happy enough.”
Player Score Par
L Donald 65 -7
M Warren 66 -6
G Fdez-Castano 66 -6
R McIlroy 66 -6
F Andersson Hed 67 -5
P Harrington 67 -5
M Kaymer 67 -5
R Ramsay 67 -5
L Westwood 67 -5
L Oosthuizen 67 -5
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