Donald holds early advantage
Luke Donald picked up where he left off in more ways than one in Dubai - but as so often in the recent past it might turn out to be Rory McIlroy's week.
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Donald leads the European Tour's season-ending DP World Tour Championship after opening the £6m event with a seven under par 65.
It was a continuation of the form he showed not only when he won in Japan on Sunday, but also when he closed with two 66s on the Earth course last December.
McIlroy is only one stroke back, however, and that after driving in the water on the long final hole and having to settle for a par there and an inward half of 31.
It sets up the possibility of the world's top two players having a shoot-out at the weekend, Donald having gone back to second ahead of Tiger Woods with his victory at the Dunlop Phoenix tournament.
"There's always a buzz playing in the last group and if I play well again hopefully we'll get a chance," said McIlroy, who is in joint second place with Scot Marc Warren and Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
Not that the number one spot or the Tour's Order of Merit title would be at stake. The 23-year-old has huge leads in both and has already emulated Donald's feat last year of topping the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
If the Englishman can win, though, both would end 2012 with four victories - the big difference, of course, being that one of McIlroy's was his second major. Donald has yet to break his duck.
On the possible head-to-head between the pair Donald said: "I'd love the challenge.
"It would be fun for us, fun for the fans and obviously fun for TV. It would be a great way to end the year."
The 34-year-old packed his seven birdies into 10 holes from the fifth and commented: "That middle part I really swung the ball well and made a lot of putts - I felt like I couldn't miss.
"You always feel different the week after winning. You just feel like you have that little extra pep in your step and there's a bit more confidence flowing through you for sure - especially winning by five as I did."
Last season third place was good enough for him to hold off McIlroy in the "Race to Dubai", but now he has only the tournament to think about.
"There was a lot more at stake last year, so obviously I felt a little bit more pressure. This time it definitely feels a little bit easier."
McIlroy turned in only one under, but then birdied the 10th and 12th and had three more in a row from the long 14th.
Warren, who has not won since 2007 and dropped four shots in the last four holes to lose his home Scottish Open by one in July, matched Donald's seven birdies, but bogeyed the short 13th.
At 189th in the world he is one of the lowest-ranked players in a field reduced to 56 when Ireland's Shane Lowry withdrew before the start with a virus.
The tournament is meant to be for the circuit's leading 60 money-winners this year, but Thomas Bjorn and Retief Goosen have injuries and Ross Fisher is preparing for next week's PGA Tour qualifying school in California.
Six players are tied for fifth - 2009 winner Lee Westwood, Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer, Padraig Harrington, Richie Ramsay, Louis Oosthuizen and Fredrik Andersson Hed.
Justin Rose is among those only one further back, but Ian Poulter is down in joint 42nd after a 72 and Sergio Garcia, playing for the first time since eye surgery last month to correct an astigmatism, shot 73.
Collated first-round scores (Gbr & Irl unless stated, par 72):
65 Luke Donald
66 Rory McIlroy, Marc Warren, Gonzalo Fdez-Castano (Spa)
67 Richie Ramsay, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, Fredrik Andersson Hed (Swe)
68 Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Nicolas Colsaerts (Bel), Peter Lawrie, Thongchai Jaidee (Tha), Scott Jamieson, Justin Rose, Stephen Gallacher, Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Jamie Donaldson, Henrik Stenson (Swe)
69 Peter Hanson (Swe), Anders Hansen (Den), Joost Luiten (Ned), Branden Grace (Rsa), Simon Dyson, Marcus Fraser (Aus), Raphael Jacquelin (Fra)
70 Thomas Aiken (Rsa), Alexander Noren (Swe), Romain Wattel (Fra), Rafael Cabrera Bello (Spa), Pablo Larrazabal (Spa), Michael Hoey
71 Jeev Milkha Singh (Ind), Chris Wood, Danny Willett, George Coetzee (Rsa), Victor Dubuisson (Fra), David Drysdale, Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa), Paul Lawrie
72 Francesco Molinari (Ita), Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Robert Rock, Graeme McDowell, Jbe Kruger (Rsa), Ian Poulter, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut)
73 Sergio Garcia (Spa), Matteo Manassero (Ita), Marcel Siem (Ger), David Lynn
74 Alejandro Canizares (Spa), Richard Sterne (Rsa), Lee Slattery
76 Richard Finch
WD: Shane Lowry