Tiger Woods closed with a spectacular eagle but was still outshone by 21-year-old Rory McIlroy and out-scored by Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer in Dubai.
McIlroy, whose only European Tour victory so far came on the same Emirates course two years ago, began the Omega Desert Classic with a seven-under-par 65 to be two ahead of a back-to-form Sergio Garcia.
Woods, without a win for almost 15 months, was struggling down at one over with one to play, but hit his second to the 564-yard last over the lake to within five feet of the flag.
Playing partners Westwood and Kaymer, the two players who have overtaken him in the rankings, both shot 69, Westwood taking twice as many strokes as Woods on the 18th.
McIlroy had already posted his eight birdies by the time the "Big Three" teed off and he would have matched his 2009 start if only he had avoided a three-putt bogey at the short seventh.
Woods was quickly in trouble, missing par putts of under six feet on the first and fourth. Then, after coming back with a birdie at the sixth, he dumped his tee shot into the lake on the next.
It cost him a third bogey and although there were birdies to come at the 10th and 11th, he immediately followed them with a double-bogey six, driving into sand and hitting his third over the green.
A two-putt birdie at the long 13th repaired some of the damage and his playing of the 18th will leave him thinking he can still get into contention for a third victory at the event.
Westwood, who missed the cut in Qatar last week and was the outsider of the trio in the eyes of the bookmakers, did not drop a stroke until his pitch to the last only just made it over the lake and he needed three more from there.
Kaymer, an eight-stroke winner in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago and runner-up to Woods on the American's last appearance in the event in 2008, had the most birdies - six - but also bogeyed the short 15th and had an unfortunate double bogey on the ninth.