Fred Couples believes a resurgent Rory McIlroy can dominate the game after the Northern Irishman carded a stunning opening 63 in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
McIlroy carded seven birdies and an eagle at Emirates Golf Club to lead on nine under par, two shots ahead of Italy's Edoardo Molinari, with defending champion Stephen Gallacher among a five-strong group on six under.
World Number One Tiger Woods, playing alongside Gallacher and McIlroy, carded nine straight pars to complete a four under 68 which meant the marquee group were a combined 19 under par, with just one bogey - from Gallacher - between them.
"It was good," McIlroy said with considerable understatement. "It was really nice. I played really well from tee to green, drove the ball great again; I think I only missed a couple of fairways and only missed one green where I had to really get it up and down.
"I took advantage of how I am driving the ball and just need to do more of the same the next three days."
Asked how close he was to his best, the two-time Major winner added: "It's close, obviously. This year I've shot a couple of good rounds. This is a little lower than I went in Abu Dhabi [where he finished second] and I feel very comfortable with my game."
McIlroy won his first European Tour title in this event in 2009 and followed that with three top ten finishes, and although the 24 year old took until December 1 to register his only victory of 2013, 1992 Masters champion Couples has no doubts that was a temporary blip.
"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," said Couples, who won the Desert Classic in 1995 and carded a two under par 70 on Thursday.
"I would have told Rory 'Hey, when I was 26 I didn't play well for a year but it did not really slow me down and just keep pushing and playing'.
"When a guy that talented gets his game back he will dominate. It's just a matter of how long and if you can keep away from all the people talking about, you will do just fine."
McIlroy's score equalled his lowest opening round on The European Tour, although he failed to win any of the previous three events where he made such a start.
Molinari has had a string of injury problems since featuring for Europe at the 2010 Ryder Cup alongside brother Francesco.
But the Italian believes he is now close to his best form after an impressive display from the tee.
“It was a good day,” he said. “I played a couple of practice rounds in the morning and in the afternoon it's definitely more difficult, especially the back nine was quite tricky, but I hit the ball really well. I missed a couple of putts but I'm hitting the ball really well.
“I've been hitting the ball very well lately, and especially off the tee. The only blemish on the card was 18 today and I actually didn't commit to the shot. But apart from that, I think I hit every fairway all day.
“Tomorrow I'll be able to play in the morning with softer greens, and I think that's going to be a big help tomorrow, because surely the greens will be firmer and firmer as the week goes by.”
Woods began his 2014 campaign in the Farmers Insurance Open last week, but carded a third round of 79 at Torrey Pines - a venue where he has won eight times - to miss the unusual 54-hole cut.
The World Number One insisted his game was "just a fraction off" and demonstrated that with a number of wayward drives, but made birdies on the three par fives on the back nine and picked up another shot on the 15th to reach the turn in four under.
"He's a true pro, he knows there are no pictures on a scorecard," McIlroy said. "He was hitting it a lot better at the end of the round but to shoot the score he did on our front nine was a good effort."
Woods added: "I played all right today. I probably could have got a couple more out of it. I didn't hit a bad putt today which was nice, it was just that sometimes the grain grabbed it pretty hard at the end."
Gallacher hailed a "sublime" display from McIlroy, but was also delighted to begin his title defence with a 66 that featured an eagle on the par five 18th and a chip-in for birdie on the fifth.
"Me and Tiger had a couple of holes where we had great saves of par but it was one of those days where we took advantage of the conditions, it was quite benign," Gallacher said.
"It was great to play with Tiger and Fred Couples in the Champions event on Tuesday, that eased me in and I knew what to expect."
South African Richard Sterne, France’s Julien Quesne, Ireland’s Damien McGrane and England’s Matthew Baldwin all joined Gallacher on six under after signing for matching rounds of 66.