DUBAI (AFP) - Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els, the two most successful golfers in the history of the Dubai Desert Classic, made good starts once again, but Sweden's Alex Noren took the lead after the opening round on Thursday.
World No. 2 McIlroy, the defending champion who has never finished outside the top 10 since winning here in 2009, started with a bogey in his four-under 68, while three-time champion and holder of the course record (61), Els closed with a bogey for his 68.
The duo were among a group of eight tied for sixth place, two behind the bogey-free Noren, who said he struggled with the layout of the golf course, and yet finished second behind McIlroy last year.
Brett Rumford of Australia, who is back again this season after missing a major part of last year because of stomach surgery for blocked intestines, and Sweden's Peter Hanson, who has suffered from a back injury for nearly two years before being healthy again, were tied for second position at five-under 67.
Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello and South African Trevor Fisher Jr were the other two on 67.
Noren said he did not feel very comfortable at the beginning of the round on a golf course that does not favour his fade game much.
"I was very happy when it was all over because it didn't feel that good warming up. I hit my irons really good all day, but pretty average driving. It was tough on a few holes, a lot of draws here and I don't like to draw the ball," said Noren, who finished runner-up by three shots to McIlroy last year at 19-under.
"I hit a lot of fades off the tee and here you know it's a drawer's course. So you feel a bit down as a fade player. But you just have to accept it and maybe play less aggressive on some holes. But I missed a few shots and got away with it and then I putted pretty well."
McIlroy started on the par-five 10th hole, and could not get out of the greenside bunker with his first attempt after hitting his approach shot into it. He made a good 15-feet putt for a bogey there. Later, he dropped another shot on the short, par-four second hole.
But the Northern Irishman also struck some magnificent shots. On the par-five 18th, he made a birdie despite hitting his tee shot into the water and taking a penalty drop, and then on the 13th hole, he needed to hit a huge cut shot from behind a palm tree which left him a 20-feet putt for eagle. He missed that, but made a birdie.
And on the difficult sixth hole, he hit his second shot from the rough to a couple of inches.
"I thought I did well, considering the start and having some of the shots I hit throughout the round. A 68 was probably a fair reflection of how I played. I don't feel like I could have really gone any lower than that but at the same time, I gave myself enough chances to make some birdies," said McIlroy.
"All in all, a decent day, decent score, especially looking at the conditions this afternoon, looks like it's going to be quite tricky for the boys out there."
Els, who found 17 greens in regulation before missing his only one on the 18th by hitting his second shot into the water guarding the green, said he has a rib injury which bothers him a bit during hitting long shots.
"I just got stuck with that shot. I've been struggling with this rib injury this week, and on the longer shots, when you have to stay wide, I really find it tough. The rib kind of catches there and throws the club inside and that's what happened there. Only 250 yards, so I had to go for it. Wasn't a good swing, and wasn't a good result," said the four-time Major champion.
World No. 6 Henrik Stenson also started well with a three-under 69.