Dubai - World number three Rory McIlroy produced a magical bunker shot in his final effort of the day for a birdie that kept him in contention, two shots off the pace, at the DP World Tour Championship on Thursday.
McIlroy carded a four-under par 68 alongside Danny Willett as nothing separated the top two players in the reckoning to win the European Tour Order of Merit.
They were tied for sixth, two shots behind the leaders at six-under par 66 on the first day of the $8 million (7.45 million euros) event.
It was a logjam at the top featuring Martin Kaymer of Germany, Andy Sullivan and Ian Poulter of England, and Australian Marcus Fraser.
Italian Francesco Molinari was the lone man in fifth place at five-under par 67, while Northern Ireland's McIlroy and England's Willett were among eight players tied at 68.
McIlroy and Willett were paired together in the final group. They made the turn at two-under, were three-under par after 12 and finished with a birdie each on the 18th.
Willett laid up and hit his third shot to five feet on the par-5 18th, but McIlroy looked in trouble after finding the greenside bunker with his third shot. With not much green to play with, a par looked more likely but the defending Race to Dubai champion managed to hole his shot.
"It never really looked like a four. I hit it into the bunker off the tee, then hit a good lay-up shot but a terrible third shot. I was thinking, it was one of those ones where you just had to get it out and it could trundle its way toward the hole. I knew I could get it close, but pleased to see it drop in," said McIlroy.
Although he did struggle a bit mid-way through the round, McIlroy was pleased to open with a 68.
"Ball-striking tee-to-green for the most part has been very good. It has been all throughout the year and it's been the putter that held me back. But I felt like I putted well today, so that bodes well for the next three days," he added.
Willett was happy to keep pace with McIlroy in the tricky, afternoon conditions.
"It's a bit calmer in the morning and usually a bit cooler. You see a few decent scores in the morning. The greens are obviously quite nice," said the 28-year-old who is just 1,613 points behind McIlroy.
"In the afternoon, we had the greens a little firm, a little glassy, but I played pretty good, solid golf. We kept it reasonably in play and went from there."
Both Kaymer and Poulter have not won anything this year and are hoping to turn it around this week.
Kaymer had an early scare when he splashed into the water with his tee shot on the sixth hole, but eight birdies was a good effort.
"I played really solid. I didn't make many mistakes really," said Kaymer.
"I gave myself a lot of chances and I putted really well, so overall it was a very, very good round."
Poulter, who was one of three players who played a bogey-free round, felt he could have done much better than a 66, considering he did not exploit the par-fives.
"I'm happy but I'm still frustrated. It could have been a much better round of golf. I know that," said the Englishman, who revealed he had to take a cortisone injection earlier in the week to relieve him of pain in one of his ankle joints caused by a bone spur.
Two-time defending champion Henrik Stenson, who is 56-under par on the course in his last three visits to Jumeirah Golf Estates, dropped five shots in the space of three holes from the 15th onwards, including a triple-bogey seven on the 16th.
The world No.6 Swede finished with a five-over par 77 and was tied 58th.