Day after being compared with Tiger Woods by Luke Donald, the Ulsterman leaves the world No 1 in his wake with a back nine birdie charge.
McIlroy starts with back end blitz on day one of the DWC
DUBAI // Rory McIlroy cringed with embarrassment when he read Luke Donald's comments about him being more talented than Tiger Woods, then produced golf so sublime that even the American at his peak would have struggled to match it.
When the two top-ranked players in the Race to Dubai, and indeed the world, got to the turn at the Earth Course yesterday, Donald was three-under, while McIlroy stood at level-par having lost a ball to card a double bogey seven on the second hole .
The back nine witnessed an astonishing nine-shot swing, with McIlroy unfurling six birdies to finish on six under, two shots behind leader Peter Hanson.
To end the year as the European Tour's No 1 player, McIlroy must win and Donald, who is on level par and tied for 26th position, has to finish outside the top nine. On this evidence, the Race to Dubai is turning into a sprint finish.
"It was the perfect start to this tournament," McIlroy said.
"To shoot a great score like that sets me up nicely for the next three days. I made some silly mistakes early on, however, the back nine was pretty flawless.
"I definitely don't feel invincible, but I feel like every time I tee-up on the golf course that I have a chance. When you get on a roll like this, it's very nice.
"You just try to hit the fairway, then hit the green, hole the putt and move on to the next hole. Everything seems stress free and I don't want to say it's easy, because it never is, but it's good to be on this run of form."
McIlroy then rattled off the distances of his six birdie putts to underline just how well he putted.
He found the cup from 12 feet (on the 10th), 25 feet (13th), 12 feet (14th), 40 feet (16th), 18 feet (17th) and then sunk a 20-footer for birdie on the long par five 18th.
"It felt like every putt on the back nine would go in," McIlroy said.
The modest Northern Irishman still felt uneasy at comparisons with Woods.
"It is one thing to have talent, but it's another thing to turn that talent into something productive," McIlroy said.
"I think what Luke said was that golf comes as easy to me as it does for Tiger.
"But, look, Tiger has won over 90 tournaments and 14 majors, and that's definitely more of a talent than my five wins."
Donald acknowledged it was a challenge playing alongside someone in such great form as McIlroy. "It's always hard playing with Rory," Donald said.
"It almost feels like a bit of a match-play kind of scenario. But the goal is to concentrate on myself, and just try and do what I can do to try and win this tournament. Hopefully the rest will take care of itself."
Donald dropped three shots coming home mainly as a result of two unplayable shots he left himself from successive drives at the 15th and 16th.
"I had a real mix," Donald said. "I played very well on the front nine and then a couple of bad swings cost me. I'll need to go on the range to work it out.
"The good news is that I'm two shots better off than I was at this stage last year. I can only concentrate on myself, not Rory, and try to get myself back in contention."
Donald will partner Louis Oosthuizen today and will be relieved of the pressure of going head-to-head with McIlroy. "It wasn't easy [playing with McIlroy]," Donald said.
"There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. I was three ahead of him and then he obviously had a great back nine when the putts were going in from everywhere.
"I didn't expect anything less from him, to be honest. I won't be paired with him for the second round so I can just go out and play, and we'll see what happens."