World No. 3 Rory McIlroy and 2008 European No. 1 Robert Karlsson led the way on 67 after the Abu Dhabi Championship opening round on Thursday, while Tiger Woods carded a 70 in his first outing of the year.
One stroke off the pace on four-under 68 were Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Gonnet and British pair Gareth Maybin and Richard Finch, who holed his second shot for an eagle-two at the sixth.
World No. 1 Luke Donald, playing alongside McIlroy and 14-time major winner Woods in the day’s marquee three-ball, launched his season with a 71, but three-time Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer of Germany slumped to a shock 77.
In glorious sunshine and calm early conditions at the European Tour event, McIlroy made a rip-roaring start with three birdies in his first four holes.
The 22-year-old Northern Irishman, who began his round at the 10th, stumbled with bogeys at the 14th and 17th, but four birdies in the final 10 holes provided a satisfying finish.
US Open champion McIlroy struck a superb tee shot at the short seventh to three feet, prompting Woods to yell “great swing,” and the galleries let out a roar when he then chipped in from the fringe of the green at the long eighth.
“A 67 is a good way to start 2012, but I didn’t feel like I drove the ball particularly well,” McIlroy told Sky Sports. “I didn’t hit it in the fairway enough.”
“That’s something I’m going to have to work on this afternoon on the practice range. I’m going to need to hit the ball in the fairway a lot more tomorrow and over the next three days,” he added.
Swede Karlsson, another early starter, sprayed the ball around the Abu Dhabi Golf Club as he missed a series of fairways and greens, but made up for it with an exquisite short game that helped him craft seven birdies.
“I’m very proud of myself because I scored really well, but I think I’m going to have to do quite a bit of work on the range now,” the 42-year-old said. “I don’t think I’ve seen any greens putt better than these, they are fantastic. They are so true and the only time they jump is through our shoe markings.”
Karlsson and McIlroy had the best of the conditions and freshening winds in the afternoon made it trickier for the players. World No. 2 Lee Westwood was among the late starters and he could only manage a 72.
Woods struck the ball better from tee to green than playing partner McIlroy, reeling off 16 pars and two birdies. The only thing missing for the 36-year-old American was a bit of luck with the putter.
“I controlled my ball all day and just had a hard time getting a feel for these greens,” former world No 1 Woods said. “I didn’t quite read them and my speeds went off because I just didn’t have it right.”
Spanish pair Sergio Garcia (71) and Jose Manuel Lara (70) recorded holes-in-one at the 186-yard 12th, while Matteo Manassero (73) went close to another ace at the short fourth.
The Italian teenager looked on with disbelief when his tee shot almost defied the laws of gravity by remaining perched on the lip.