DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Rory McIlroy upstaged the world's top three golfers with a 7-under 65 Thursday to take the first-round lead at the Dubai Desert Classic, four shots better than No. 1 Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer and six ahead of an inconsistent Tiger Woods.
McIlroy, whose only European Tour win came in Dubai two years ago, had eight birdies to go with one bogey at the Emirates Golf Club. The seventh-ranked McIlroy took the early lead and held it. Sergio Garcia (67) and Thomas Aiken (67) trailed by two shots in windy conditions.
"I really had a lot of iron shots and got away with a couple of drives that I was quite fortunate to make birdies from," the 21-year-old McIlroy said. "I had a putt for a 64 on the last that didn't quite go in. But I'll take 65 in these conditions any day."
Woods shot a 71 and had problems early in the day, twice going to 2 over. But he eagled the 18th hole after hitting a 3-wood about 250 yards to the green.
"I struggled today with ball flight," he said. "My trajectory wasn't what I wanted on a lot of shots, and consequently, I could never get a ball pin high especially when the wind is blowing this hard."
Much of the buzz coming into the opening round centered on the grouping of the top three golfers. Westwood made several putts en route to four birdies. But he faltered toward the end, three-putting on 17 to miss out on another birdie and scoring a lone bogey on the 18th when his approach shot fell short of the green and nearly rolled into the water.
"I played solidly. I didn't make too many mistakes," Westwood said. "It was disappointing to shoot 1 over for the last two holes. One under would have been nice. All in all, 69 was a pretty good score."
Kaymer's approach shot on the ninth hole hit the grandstand and ended up in the water, leading to a double bogey. He finished with six birdies, including one on the 17th where his drive cut the corner on the 359-yard hole and ended up on the green. He narrowly missed an eagle putt.
"Yeah, it was OK," Kaymer said. "I hit a lot of good shots, and was a little bit unfortunate on the ninth."
Woods had trouble and flashes of brilliance during his round. The troubles were obvious by his body language — he swore after an approach shot drifted left and slammed a club into the ground on wayward shot that led to his double bogey on the 12th hole.
He let out a sigh when a birdie putt came up short on the 13th. He badly missed an 80-yard chip on the 17th that ended up in the back of the green, leaving him with a 45-foot birdie putt.
"That was awful. Awful," he said of the chip. "It's something that I'm still working on technique, and unfortunately, sometimes I think about technique instead of feel."
McIlroy was runner-up in last month's Abu Dhabi Championship. The Northern Irishman came into the tournament saying he felt he should be winning more tournaments. Along with his win in Dubai, he won the Quail Hollow Championship in 2009. He said he was benefiting from the work he has done on his swing in the offseason and this week.
"With the big three being paired together, I tried to go in a little under the radar," McIlroy said. "It was nice to get a good round in there early."
Much like McIlroy, Garcia has been overhauling his game and trying to return to the form that had him ranked as high as No. 2. The Spaniard had been in the news more for missing cuts than winning tournaments — though his game has improved with a top-10 finish in Qatar last weekend. He is ranked 79th.
"You know, it's slowly getting there," Garcia said. "Still needs to improve, and there will be some not nice rounds coming. This is just the beginning."
Defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez (72) was in the mix until the final four holes, when he had two double bogeys.
There is more at stake this weekend than just the tournament title.
Westwood could lose the top ranking if Kaymer wins and he finishes lower than second, and if Kaymer finishes second and Westwood is out of the top 10. If Kaymer is tied for second, he could still become No. 1 if Westwood finishes out of the top 36.
Woods could move ahead of Kaymer if he wins and Kaymer finishes outside the top five.