Fred Couples believes a resurgent Rory McIlroy can dominate the game after the Ulsterman carded a stunning opening 63 that left playing partner Tiger Woods in the shade in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
McIlroy carded seven birdies and an eagle at Emirates Golf Club to lead on nine under par, two shots ahead of Italy's Edoardo Molinari, with defending champion Stephen Gallacher among a five-strong group on six under.
Woods, playing alongside Gallacher and McIlroy, carded nine straight pars to complete a four-under 68 which meant the marquee group were a combined 19 under par, with just one bogey – from Gallacher – between them.
"It was good," McIlroy said with considerable understatement. "It was really nice. I played really well from tee to green, drove the ball great again; I think I only missed a couple of fairways and only missed one green where I had to really get it up and down.
"I took advantage of how I am driving the ball and just need to do more of the same the next three days."
Asked how close he was to his best, the two-time major winner added: "It's close, obviously. This year I've shot a couple of good rounds. This is a little lower than I went in Abu Dhabi [where he finished second] and I feel very comfortable with my game."
McIlroy won his first European Tour title in this event in 2009 and followed that with three top-10 finishes, but opted not to play last year as he struggled to get to grips with his new equipment.
The 24-year-old took until December 1 to register his only victory of 2013, but former world number one and 1992 Masters champion Couples has no doubts that was a temporary blip.
"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," said Couples, who won the Desert Classic in 1995 and carded a two-under-par 70 on Thursday. "I would have told Rory 'Hey, when I was 26 I didn't play well for a year but it did not really slow me down and just keep pushing and playing'.
"When a guy that talented gets his game back he will dominate. It's just a matter of how long and if you can keep away from all the people talking about, you will do just fine."
McIlroy's score equalled his lowest opening round on the European Tour, although he failed to win any of the previous three events where he made such a start, most famously following a 63 in the 2010 Open Championship at St Andrews with an 80.
Woods began his 2014 campaign in the Farmers Insurance Open last week, but carded a third round of 79 at Torrey Pines – a venue where he has won eight times – to miss the unusual 54-hole cut. The world number one insisted his game was "just a fraction off" and demonstrated that with a number of wayward drives, but made birdies on the three par fives on the back nine and picked up another shot on the 15th to reach the turn in four under.
"He's a true pro, he knows there are no pictures on a scorecard," McIlroy said of his Nike stablemate. "He was hitting it a lot better at the end of the round but to shoot the score he did on our front nine was a good effort."
Woods added: "I played all right today. I probably could have got a couple more out of it. I didn't hit a bad putt today which was nice, it was just that sometimes the grain grabbed it pretty hard at the end."