Brett Rumford set the very early target at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic but was looking over his shoulder with defending champion Rory McIlroy within striking distance.
The Australian fired a five under par opening 67 to move ahead at Emirates Golf Club, alongside European Ryder Cup Captain Darren Clarke and amateur James Allan.
Clarke is without a win since his Open Championship triumph in 2011 but was also five under through 12 holes, while Allan had completed 13.
McIlroy was three shots behind the leading trio after 13 holes of his opening round as he recovered from an opening bogey on the tenth.
Rumford is back on The European Tour after suffering an illness last year which kept him out of the game for over five months.
The 38 year old was admitted to hospital during the Tshwane Open after he ate an apple which caused a blockage in his digestive system, and as a result had to have 30cm of his small intestine removed.
He returned to action less than three months later, but he drastically underestimated the toll the whole ordeal had taken on his body and he did not play again in 2015 after The Open Championship.
But he has made three consecutive cuts to start the 2016 campaign and birdies on the 11th, 13th, 16th, 18th and third saw him set the pace in Dubai.
Allan had a birdie on the second and four more in six holes from the eighth moved him into contention.
Clarke has openly admitted that The Ryder Cup is his focus in 2016 but his mind looked completely on course on Thursday with birdies on the 11th, 16th, 17th, 18th and second.
Fellow Northern Irishman McIlroy dropped a shot on the tenth after getting in bunker trouble but back-to-back birdies on the 13th and 14th, and a spectacular gain on the 18th after putting his tee shot in the water, fired him back up the leaderboard.
A dropped shot on the second was then regained on the third to leave the World Number Two two under.
David Lipsky had played alongside Rumford and the American signed for a 68 to sit a shot off the lead alongside Nathan Holman, Søren Kjeldsen and 2012 champion Rafa Cabrera-Bello.
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