Dubai - Jordan Smith and Adrian Otaegui led the DP World Tour Championship after Thursday's opening round as a late wobble by Francesco Molinari kept the door open for Tommy Fleetwood in the battle for the Race to Dubai.
Smith, even par through 12 holes, made an eagle and four birdies in his last six holes to reach six-under par 66, where he was later joined by the solid Otaegui, who was bogey-free on the day.
The duo led defending champion Jon Rahm and England's former Masters champion Danny Willett by one shot, with Molinari, who is currently leading the Race to Dubai standings by slightly over a million points, dropping down to tied fifth place at four-under par 68 alongside four other players.
Fleetwood, who won the Race to Dubai last year, holed a birdie putt of 25 feet from off the green on the last hole to finish with a bogey-free three-under 69.
The Englishman was in a group of 12 players on that score, including Rory McIlroy.
The only way Fleetwood can retain the Race to Dubai trophy is by winning the tournament and Molinari finishing outside the top five.
That looked difficult when the 36-year-old Molinari reached six-under after 14 solid holes where his short game was on song. But the faltering finish sets it up for a closer battle over the last three days of the season.
"I thought my putting and my chipping were great for most of the round," said Molinari, who was bogey-free with six birdies for his first 14 holes.
He added: "Obviously, a bit disappointing to finish with two three-putts in the last four holes, but I really holed some good putts before that.
"I did what I need to do to get the ball up-and-down when I was missing greens, and tried to post a good score."
"I'm happy the way I scored out on the course. I can't really say I'm happy the way I played. I think the game is pretty close to being good. I think it's the end of a very long and tiring season, so it's normal not to have a ton of energy."
Smith, who graduated from the Challenge Tour in 2016 and won the European Open last year, made two birdies and two bogeys in the first 12 holes before catching fire.
"I was feeling good throughout the day. Hit a lot of good shots on that front nine, but just couldn't quite find the hole. Hit a lot of good putts, all burning the edge and then something clicked on that back nine and they all started going in," said the world No 139.
The Dubai-based Otaegui started with successive birdies on the first two holes and cheered his fans with a flawless round.
"I was accurate with the wedges today. I think I didn't go for any par 5s in two, but I was accurate with the third shot, so I left myself lots of birdie chances and I was able to make them," said the Spaniard after making birdies on all four par-5 holes.
In the race for the Rookie of the Year honour, India's Shubhankar Sharma remained the favourite despite opening with a 73. His closest rivals, Lucas Herbert of Australia and Sam Horsfield of England, shot 74 and 73 respectively.
Leading first-round scores Thursday in the DP World Tour Championship at the par-72 Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates:
66 - Jordan Smith (ENG), Adrian Otaegui (ESP)
67 - Danny Willett (ENG), Jon Rahm (ESP)
68 - Ross Fisher (ENG), Thomas Pieters (BEL), Matt Wallace (ENG), Haotong Li (CHN), Francesco Molinari (ITA)
69 - Hideto Tanihara (JPN), Tom Lewis (ENG), Marcus Kinhult (SWE), Wade Ormsby (AUS), Joost Luiten (NED), Mikko Korhonen (FIN), Andrea Pavan (ITA), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (ESP), Alexander Noren (SWE), Rory McIlroy (NIR), Patrick Reed (USA), Tommy Fleetwood (ENG)
70 - Michael Lorenzo-Vera (FRA), Shane Lowry (IRE), Dylan Frittelli (RSA), Thomas Detry (BEL), Lee Westwood (ENG), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (THA)
71 - Robert Rock (ENG), Matthew Southgate (ENG), Dean Burmester (RSA), Chris Paisley (ENG), Henrik Stenson (SWE), Erik Van Rooyen (RSA), Branden Grace (RSA), Sergio Garcia (ESP), Tyrrell Hatton (ENG), Thorbjorn Olesen (DEN), Xander Schauffele (USA)
72 - Lee Slattery (ENG), Paul Dunne (IRL), Martin Kaymer (GER), Wu Ashun (CHN), Ian Poulter (ENG), Andy Sullivan (ENG), Alexander Levy (FRA), Alexander Bjork (SWE)
73 - Aaron Rai (ENG), Sam Horsfield (ENG), Shubhankar Sharma (IND), Chris Wood (ENG), Russell Knox (SCO)
74 - Darren Fichardt (RSA), Lucas Herbert (AUS), Matthew Fitzpatrick (ENG), Jorge Campillo (ESP), Ryan Fox (NZL), Brandon Stone (RSA)
75 - Eddie Pepperell (ENG)