DUBAI // Rory McIlroy watched with envy as Martin Kaymer established himself as the king of Abu Dhabi golf and climbed to No 2 in the world rankings.
Now, the young Northern Irishman sees Dubai as a similar springboard for himself.
McIlroy, 21, has made the Emirates Golf Club his favourite port of call during his short career, having accepted early invitations to play in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic as an amateur, and now feels right at home here.
Yesterday marked his sixth appearance in the tournament and the indications are that it may prove to be as memorable as his triumphant visit of two years ago.
"It's a special feeling whenever I come back here," McIlroy said as he savoured his seven-under-par opening round of 65 that earned him a two-stroke advantage going into today's second round.
"This is the one professional tournament I've played more than any other and it feels like home from home.I just feel very comfortable playing here. Like Martin Kaymer says he feels like Abu Dhabi is his home course, I regard this place in the same kind of way."
A run of five consecutive birdies around the turn put McIlroy in early command of the US$2.5 million (Dh9.2m) event, which is the first in 16 years on the European Tour to feature the world's top three players.
That illustrious trio of Lee Westwood, Kaymer and Tiger Woods have much to do over the next 54 holes to overtake the confident leader.
"I felt I was in control for most of the day, taking on the pins I needed to and leaving alone the ones I didn't need to go at," McIlroy said.
Woods, still feeling his way back to form and confidence, kept himself in contention for a third title here after an eagle at the 18th hole reduced his yawning eight-shot deficit to a more manageable six.
Two shots with his three wood cut the daunting 564-yard final hole down to size, boosting the morale of the 14-time major champion for what he hopes will be a better second day.
"A lot of the guys shot good numbers this morning when the wind was lighter so hopefully I can do the same thing tomorrow morning," Woods said. Westwood, despite a bogey at that final hole, and Kaymer posted respectable 69s in afternoon conditions that proved far trickier than those confronting McIlroy for his 7.50am start.
Westwood, determined to extend his reign as world No 1 in the face of Kaymer's challenge, tried not to let the late lapse bother him.
"It wasn't too easy out there, so 69 is a good score," he said. "I played well and hit a lot of good shots out there. If I can go out there and shoot five or six under I'll be in a good position.
Kaymer's steady opening round was spoiled by the unluckiest of breaks at the ninth hole. His approach, played conservatively to the right of potential trouble, bounced off one of the hospitality chalets and skidded across the green into the lake, resulting in a double-bogey six.
"I hit it a little bit off line but not that bad," he said. "I was surprised to see it go all the way into the water. It was a little unlucky." The nearest overnight rivals to McIlroy are Sergio Garcia, the Spaniard who has endured a frustrating time over the past two years, and South Africa's Thomas Aiken.
Garcia, who won the last of his 20 professional titles in November 2008, and Aiken both shot bogey-free 67s to finish two shots behind McIlroy and one ahead of a group of six players sharing fourth place on four under par.
Khaled Attieh, the promising 16-year-old Saudi Arabian schoolboy who won the amateur qualifying event to secure a place in this line-up, was not disgraced with a three-over-par 75 that included birdies at the first and 17th.
That was two shots better than the score of Callum Nicoll, the Dubai-based Scot who won the corresponding qualifying competition for local professionals.