Spain's Alejandro Canizares claimed the lead after a first round of the DP World Tour Championship that did little to change the battle to end the season as European number one.
Canizares completed a six-under-par 66 at Jumeirah Golf Estates to lead by one from Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Australia's Marcus Fraser, with Race to Dubai leader Henrik Stenson a shot further back alongside Jamie Donaldson and Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
Stenson admitted he lost focus to three-putt the 18th for his only bogey of the day, but did enough to suggest his nearest challengers for the money list title will be hard pressed to overhaul him despite continuing to battle a wrist injury.
Playing partner Justin Rose, who needs to finish fifth or better, carded a two-under-par 70, while third-placed Graeme McDowell returned a 72 and fourth-placed Ian Poulter a 69.
"It has been a lot of hard work all season and I just let my focus slip on the last," said Stenson, who is looking to become the first player to win the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in the same year.
"That sucks, but I am still in good shape and playing nicely. The guys are running on fumes so everybody is looking forward to getting done.
"You can't win a tournament on Thursday but you can certainly play your way out of it. I would have taken four under at the start of the day so I just have to let the disappointment of the last slip away."
Poulter believes he is playing the best golf of his career after finishes of 15th, second and fifth in the first three events of the inaugural Final Series, results which have given him a chance of overhauling Stenson and collecting on a 100 dollar bet, at 10/1, with his rival and neighbour in Lake Nona in Orlando.
The Ryder Cup star carded four birdies and one bogey in his opening 69, but was frustrated at missing a number of chances to be higher up the leaderboard.
"I am annoyed," Poulter said. "I made two putts which were outside birdie chances and took a couple more but the rest were missed. I am frustrated but happy to be only three behind (the lead).
"I need to continue to be aggressive and see if I can nick it at the end. It's a good mix to be really angry being three under par and still being in there for the next three days."
Rose proved Stenson's point about the players "running on fumes", the US Open champion revealing he is suffering from an inflamed shoulder that required an MRI scan recently.
But the 33-year-old is happy to have control of his destiny, with a victory here giving him a second money list title - he won it in 2007 - regardless of other results.
"Henrik is making it hard for the rest of us but that's why I wanted it in my own hands and that's still the case, so my goal remains the same for the rest of the week," Rose said.
McDowell was happy to get himself back into contention, the Northern Irishman lying three over par after 13 holes before rolling in a hat-trick of birdies from the 14th.
The former US Open champion is not a fan of the grainy greens on the Earth Course, adding: "'Here we go again' crossed my mind on the front nine because these greens have got in my head in the past.
"But my game is in good shape and I committed to not reacting to what happened. They are tough greens to read and I have to accept that and move on. You can't win it today but I could easily have blown myself out of it."
Canizares carded seven birdies and one bogey in his 66 before revealing his relief at being in Dubai at all after problems with his girlfriend's visa.
"My girlfriend is from the Czech Republic and I always forget she doesn't have a Spanish passport and needs a visa," Canizares explained. "I only remembered when we got to the check-in desk at the airport in Turkey on Sunday evening and handed over the passports.
"Fortunately we had help from a lot of people and the tournament director Nick Tarrat was waiting with Dubai's captain of immigration when we got to Dubai at 3am on Monday morning."
Former world number one Rory McIlroy had to settle for a one-under 71 after being three under for his first four holes, but the 24-year-old could at least report better news in terms of his focus on the course.
"It's much better than it has been the last few months and I am playing better, which is important," said McIlroy, who admitted to being distracted by a legal dispute with his former management company and rumours of a split from tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, who was watching him here.
"It's good that the game is back on track. I have this event and two more so it would be great to get a win before the end of the season."