DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Luke Donald shot a 7-under 65 in the opening round of the DP World Champion on Thursday to lead Rory McIlroy and two others by one stroke, setting up a potential showdown between the world's top two golfers at the season-ending tournament.
Donald saved par on Nos. 1 and 4 by sinking an 8-footer and 15-footer, and some accurate up-and-down play helped him make four birdies in a stretch of six holes. Donald came within a few feet of the pin on the 10th and 11th for easy birdie putts and then barely missed an eagle on 14.
"It was a nice, solid start," said the Englishman, who overtook Tiger Woods for the world No. 2 ranking following his win last week in Japan and made six of his seven birdies on the first 10 holes on Thursday. "It was very tidy. Just a lot of solid golf. I gave myself a lot of opportunities."
Donald fended off a challenge from McIlroy at the tournament last year to become the first player to clinch both the European Tour and PGA Tour money titles. But since then, he has watched McIlroy match that feat this season and overtake him at the top of the rankings earlier in the year.
"I'd love the challenge," Donald said of facing McIlroy Sunday. "Rory is No. 1 in the world. And it will be fun for us. It will be fun for the fans and obviously fun for TV. It would be a great way to end the year."
McIlroy struggled on the front nine, shooting only one birdie, but soon turned it around with a stretch of five birdies in seven holes. He could have pulled even with Donald but hit his tee shot in the water on the 18th and had to settle for par.
McIlroy is trying to emulate Westwood's feat in 2009 in which he won the money title and the tournament.
"I got off to a bit of a slow start but felt I was hitting the ball well enough to give myself opportunities for birdies. I just had to stay patient. I got it together on the back nine," McIlroy said. "It's a great way to start. Obviously, I'm confident heading into tomorrow."
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain and Marc Warren of Scotland are also at 6 under.
On a day when more than three-quarters of the field shot under par, there were plenty of other big names in the mix.
Lee Westwood, three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, 2010 PGA Championship winner Martin Kaymer and two others were at 5 under. Six players, including 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, were a further shot behind.
"Played well. Gave myself some chances," said Westwood, who has recently parted ways with his longtime caddy and moved to Florida to concentrate on the PGA Tour in 2013. "I missed four putts I really should have holed. I hit the ball close a lot and if you hit the ball close, then you are going to miss a few and make a few."
Fernandez-Castano, looking for his second victory of the season, holed six birdies on his back nine to draw level with Warren, the early clubhouse leader.
"The back nine had nothing to do with the front nine," Fernandez-Castano said. "I played very well on the front nine, believe it or not. I didn't hole any putts but I stayed patient, and all of the putts seemed to drop on the back nine."