Tiger Woods got his 2012 season off to a steady start at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday, but he had to settle for second best in his head-to-head with red-hot Rory McIlroy
Woods had a two-under 70, three more that McIlroy, but one ahead of the third member of the first round's top grouping - world number one Luke Donald.
The 36-year-old American was the focus of attention once again as he lit the fuse on a campaign which he hopes will see him return to the forefront and possibly add to his majors haul of 14.
He grabbed an early birdie at his second hole, the 11th, and almost added another at the next, but despite striking the ball well off the tee, the putts would not fall quite as much as he wanted.
He had an eagle chance at the par-five 18th as he reached the turn, but he three-putted to go out in one-under 35.
Woods secured his second birdie of the day at the par-three fourth and parred his way in from there for an encouraging two-under 70.
McIlroy, the 22-year-old world number three, meanwhile got off to a storming start with birdies at 11, 12 and 13 to take the early lead in the $2.7million tournament which opens the tour's three-week long Desert Swing also taking in Doha and Dubai
He then bogeyed the next after finding a plugged lie in a bunker and dropped another stroke on the 17th, but when he completed the inward half with another birdie he was part of a eight-way tie for the lead on two under par.
A steadier back nine saw him grab birdies at the second, third and eighth, where he chipped in, to come in with a five-under 67, and a share of the clubhouse lead with Sweden's former European number one Robert Karlsson.
A noticeably more muscular-looking McIlroy said that he was already seeing the benefit of all the hard fitness training work he had put in during his winter break.
"That was a nice way to open the season althought I did not hit the ball as well as I would have liked," he said.
The third member of the marquee grouping, world number one Luke Donald, opened quietly with eight straight pars before birdies wrapped around the turn put him on the leaderboard.
But he dropped a shot at the seventh to fall back to one under where he stayed for the rest of the round.
Gareth Maybin of Northern Ireland was alone in third second place in the clubhouse at four under.
World number two Lee Westwood, number four Martin Kaymer and Spain's Sergio Garcia, who were all also kick-starting their season, were to provide the anchor grouping in the afternoon action.
"A 67 is a good way to start 2012 but I didn't feel like I drove the ball particularly well," US Open champion 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."
Karlsson, the 2008 European number one, sprayed the ball around the Abu Dhabi Golf Club as he missed a series of fairways and greens but he 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," said the 42-year-old Swede.
"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."
Former world number one Woods put his best foot forward, playing almost flawless golf from tee to green and 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," said Woods.
"I didn't quite read them and my speeds went off because I just didn't have it right."