DUBAI - A swashbuckling finish yielding five birdies in six holes catapulted Rory McIlroy up the Dubai World Championship leaderboard on Thursday as he seized the early initiative in his money-list battle with Luke Donald.
The U.S. Open champion returned a six-under-par 66 while PGA Tour money-winner Donald, bidding to become the first player to land the orders of merit on both sides of the Atlantic, struggled to a 72.
McIlroy made a bad start, losing his ball after slicing his second shot into bushes and racking up a double-bogey seven.
The 22-year-old Northern Irishman dropped another shot at the eighth but bounced back in determined fashion, roaring home in 30 strokes with birdies at the 10th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 17th and 18th.
"That back nine was pretty much flawless and I holed some really nice putts," said the world number two. "I just kept giving myself birdie chances and luckily enough I was able to take a few.
"It was a perfect start to the tournament for me. To shoot a great score like that sets me up nicely for the next three days."
Donald toiled in the face of McIlroy's assault, bogeying three holes in a row from the 14th.
The 34-year-old Englishman has a lead of $1.02 million over second-placed McIlroy at the top of the European money-list and needs to finish in the top eight here to end the season as number one.
"Rory had a great back nine," said world number one Donald. "He was holing putts from everywhere.
"I cannot really concentrate on what he is doing though. I've got to take care of my own business."
Swede Peter Hanson leads the way after firing a record-equalling 64 at the Greg Norman-designed Earth course.
Hanson, a member of the triumphant 2010 Ryder Cup team, was bursting with pride after his round.
"I think it's the best golf I've ever played," he said. "It is quite a demanding course and the wind picked up a little over the back nine so I am very happy with the way I struck the ball and rolled a few putts in.
"My ball-striking was very pure. I gave myself a lot of chances and my first five birdies were tap-ins which was nice."
Hanson started his round quietly but a sequence of six birdies in eight holes from the 10th separated him from the rest of the elite, 57-man field.
The 34-year-old spurned a good chance to eclipse the course record held by Lee Westwood and Ross Fisher.
"I chipped it up to about six feet at the last and missed my birdie putt," said Hanson, "but I had no idea about the record.
"It was a really hard putt, it broke hard off the right. I tried to drop it in from there and it went just a little too hard."
Lawrie produced the sort of display that earned him victory at the 1999 British Open as he tucked into second place on 65, one ahead of McIlroy and two in front of Spain's Sergio Garcia. The veteran ended a barren run of nine years without a victory when he captured the Andalucia Open title in March and said he still believed he was capable of improving as a player.
"I probably hit more balls and work harder at my game than I ever did," the Scot told reporters. "I'm only 42 and have got a long time to go.
"If you want to get better you have to put the time in and I've been doing that. I want to be back in the top 50 of the rankings," said world number 163 Lawrie.
Garcia, winner of back-to-back tournaments in Spain in October, was content with his round, especially as the Earth course is not to his liking.
"I am not going to lie...it's not one of my favourites," said the Spaniard. "But it's always in good shape so that makes it fun and we usually get great weather."
South Korean Y.E. Yang, the 2009 PGA champion, pulled out of the event after four holes because of a shoulder injury. The 42nd-ranked South Korean was at 1-over when he retired. Yang later tweeted that he was "disappointed'' to end his year this way.
This week's tournament offers a prize fund of $7.5 million plus an additional bonus pool of $7.5 million to be distributed among the leading 15 players in the final order of merit.