Abu Dhabi - 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.
LIVE scorecard from the Abu Dhabi HSBC ChampionshipWoods had a two-under-par 70, three more than 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 that 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, bogey-free 70.
"I hit the ball well all day today. It was a good ball-striking round," he said.
"I just had a hard time reading the greens out there. The greens were pretty grainy and I just had a hard time getting a feel for it.
"Towards the end I hit some pretty good putts but overall I got fooled a lot on my reads."
McIlroy, the 22-year-old world number three, 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 an 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 start the competitive season I suppose," he said.
"I didn't feel like I played that good. I definitely didn't strike the ball as good as I have been the last couple of weeks.
"But I was able to manage my way around the golf course and end up shooting five under."
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.
"It was fun to be part of that threesome - Tiger and Rory are huge names in the world of sport," the Englishman said.
"Rory took advantage of a few more opportunities. I didn't make too many putts."
Gareth Maybin of Northern Ireland was alone in third place in the clubhouse at four under behind McIlroy and Karlsson.
World number two Lee Westwood, number four Martin Kaymer and Spain's Sergio Garcia, who were all also kick-starting their seasons, were to provide the anchor grouping in the afternoon action.