(CNN) -- Rory McIlroy made a strong start to the defense of his Dubai Desert Classic title, ending Thursday's opening round in a six-way tie for the lead.
The 20-year-old Northern Irishman, whose last visit to Dubai in November saw him fail to win the European Tour money list crown, shot four-under-par 68 in testing conditions at the Emirates Golf Club.
He was joined at the top of the leaderboard by Charl Schwartzel, India's Jeev Milkha Singh, Italian World Cup hero Edoardo Molinari, Sweden's Alexander Noren and Welshman Stephen Dodd.
Schwartzel, who won two consecutive European Tour events in his native South Africa last month, had a bogey-free round despite poor visibility caused by wind whipping sand across the Majlis course, which has thick rough.
McIlroy dropped just one shot, at the par-four second hole, but finished strongly with birdies at his last two holes.
"It was very important to start my defense with a good score, I would have taken anything under 70 looking at the scoring and conditions," the world No. 9 told reporters.
"It was very tricky. It was windy, sandy and dusty and I did get off to a rough start, but I made a lucky birdie on the third to get me back to level par.
"I knew the front nine was playing a lot tougher than the back nine so I knew if I kept it around level par I was going okay and then I could hopefully take advantage of the par-fives on the back nine. I was able to do that. I birdied a couple of them and had another couple of chances. Overall it was a great day's work and I'm in good spirits."
Singh, who celebrated the birth of a son last week, bogeyed the par-four fifth hole but then birdied four in a row from the ninth before finishing with six pars.
Noren could have had the outright lead, but bogeyed the par-four ninth hole after starting on the 10th tee.
The sextet were one shot ahead of five players on 69 headed by world No. 7 Paul Casey, who bounced back from consecutive bogeys on his front nine and birdied the par-five last.
The Englishman was level with Denmark's Anders Hansen, 1997 champion Richard Green of Australia, Spain's Alvaro Quiros and Italian amateur Matteo Manassero.
Sweden's Robert Karlsson, who won the Qatar Masters last week, headed a group of seven players tied for 12th on 70 which also included Spanish Ryder Cup veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Lee Westwood, who beat McIlroy to the Race To Dubai title with victory in the lucrative season-ending event, was in a group of 14 players tied for 32nd -- the rest of the 132-man field failed to make par.
The Englishman bogeyed his first hole, the 10th, and dropped three more shots in an up-and-down round also featuring four birdies.
Veteran American golf legend Tom Watson was another shot back on one-over 73 after three bogeys and a double at the par-four 14th.
Before the tournament started, he had taken No. 1 Tiger Woods to task over his marital infidelity.
World No. 10 Henrik Stenson of Sweden was in danger of missing the cut after his 76 left him tied for 97th.