(CNN) -- Rory McIlroy boosted his hopes of being crowned European No.1 with a six-under-par 66 Thursday in the first round of the Dubai World Championship.
Luke Donald, who topped the money list heading into the tournament, stumbled to a level-par 72 on the Earth Course, but both were trailing leader Peter Hanson of Sweden, who equaled the course record with an eight-under-par 64.
Northern Ireland's McIlroy needs to win come Sunday with Donald finishing lower than ninth to overtake his English rival and claim the Race to Dubai.
Paired together, Donald looked in command as he reached the turn in 33 -- three under-par -- while McIlroy, despite flashes of brilliance, was level-par.
But all that changed on the closing nine holes as McIlroy conjured up six birdies, including three in a row to the 18th, while Donald dropped three shots in a row from the 14th after errant tee shots to go back to level-par.
McIlroy, who won the Hong Kong Open last weekend to set up the showdown, is full of confidence.
"I made three silly mistakes on the front nine but stayed patient and the back nine was pretty much flawless," he told the official European Tour website.
"I definitely don't feel invincible, but I feel every time I tee it up I have a good chance of shooting a good score."
Donald, bidding to become the first man to officially top the money lists on both the PGA and European Tours, was left to rue his back nine collapse.
"I felt very much in control and then I lost it, but this course can do that to you. There are a lot of hazards in the middle of fairways, so you aim for one side and if you miss it you can be in the bushes."
Ryder Cup star Hanson also finished strongly to claim the outright lead from early starter Paul Lawrie, who was round in 65.
"I think it's the best golf I've played," he said.
Spain's Sergio Garcia, chasing a third successive European Tour win, is well-placed after a 67, but World No.3 Lee Westwood has work to do after a one-over-par 73.