Alex Noren fired an unblemished 66 to set the clubhouse target midway through the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, but defending champion Rory McIlroy was lurking just two shots behind.
The Swede fired four birdies on the front nine - his back nine - to open up a one-shot lead over Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Trevor Fisher Jnr and Brett Rumford on a glorious morning at Emirates Golf Club.
Rumford, playing just his fifth tournament in seven months due to illness, set the early pace with birdies at the 11th, 13th, 16th and 18th to turn in 33, but would make only one further gain on the third as he posted a 67 from the first group out.
All eyes were on McIlroy, though, and although he dropped a shot on the tenth after getting in bunker trouble, back-to-back birdies on the 13th and 14th, and a spectacular gain on the 18th after hitting his tee shot in the water fired him back up the leaderboard.
A dropped shot on the second was then regained on the third and after another birdie on the fifth, the Race to Dubai champion put his approach on the sixth to within a foot and signed for a four under par 68.
Noren and Cabrera-Bello were playing in the same group and it looked like the 2012 champion was going to steal the show again with birdies on the 11th, 13th, 17th and 18th.
But he could only add one more gain on the third while Noren, who missed just one cut last season, made birdies on the first, fourth, fifth and seventh, to add to those at the tenth and 17th, to move ahead.
Fisher Jnr, meanwhile, turned in level par 35 but picked up shots on the tenth, 13th, 14th, 17th and 18th to catapult himself into contention.
David Lipsky was alongside McIlroy at four under with just one bogey in his round, while Simon Dyson was flawless in his 68.
There was then a large group of players at three under, including amateur James Allan who earned his place in the field for the second year running as the top amateur on the MENA Tour.
The Englishman had been in a share of the lead after 13 holes thanks to birdies on the second, eighth, tenth, 12th and 13th, but dropped shots on the 14th and 18th dropped him back into a group that also contained Graeme McDowell and Henrik Stenson.
Andy Sullivan recovered from a double bogey on the tenth with four birdies to sit in the group at two under, one clear of European Ryder Cup Captain Darren Clarke.
The 2011 Open Champion had held the lead at six under when he made a spectacular long putt on the fourth for a sixth birdie of the day, but registered three bogeys and a double in his last five holes.
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