(CNN) -- Golf's elite charged to the top of the leaderboard in the first round of the Dubai World Championship Thursday in the $8million concluding event of the European Tour.
World No.2 Luke Donald, looking for back to back wins after victory in the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan last weekend, led the way after a seven-under-par 65 at Jumeirah Golf Estates but rankings leader Rory McIlroy was only one shot adrift in a three-strong chasing group.
Donald grabbed his seven birdies in a stunning run from the fifth to the 14th to set the early pace.
"I felt like I couldn't miss. I hit some really good irons shots too and it's fun when it seems that easy," the Englishman told the official European Tour website.
McIlroy, who has already clinched money list honors on both the European and PGA Tours, was one under at the turn, but then made five birdies in seven holes.
The Northern Irishman drove into the water at the par-five 18th, but recovered for a par to make sure his card was flawless.
"I think I drove the ball beautifully with the exception of 18," he said.
He shared second place with Scot Marc Warren and Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
Joint fourth on 67 was a star-studded group, with former major winners in Germany's Martin Kaymer, Padraig Harrington of Ireland and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.
2009 winner Lee Westwood of England was also on that mark along with Scot Richie Ramsay and Fredrik Andersson Hed of Sweden.
But Ryder Cup heroes Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter trailed after one-over 73s.
Garcia is making his first appearance since Medinah after eye surgery, while HSBC World Golf Championship winner Poulter was undone by inconsistent play.
All 12 of the European team which retained the trophy against the United States are playing in Dubai.
The top 60 in the European Tour money list tee off in the showpiece finale, but only 56 have started with Thomas Bjorn and Retief Goosen out injured, while Ross Fisher pulled out earlier in the week, and just before the start Ireland's Shane Lowry withdrew after going down with a virus.
Donald, who moved back ahead of Tiger Woods in the rankings with his Japan victory, is seeking his fourth win of the year.