|Tiger Woods (R) has even been cheering on his younger rival Rory McIlroy (L) during the event [GALLO/GETTY]
World number three Rory McIlroy and 2008 European number one Robert Karlsson led the way on 67 after the Abu Dhabi Championship opening round on Thursday while Tiger Woods carded a 70 in his first outing of the year.
One stroke off the pace on four-under 68 were Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Gonnet and British pair Gareth Maybin and Richard Finch who holed his second shot for an eagle two at the sixth.
World number one Luke Donald, playing alongside McIlroy and 14-times major winner Woods in the day's marquee three-ball, launched his season with a 71 but 2008, 2010 and 2011 Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer of Germany slumped to a shock 77.
In glorious sunshine and calm early conditions at the European Tour event, McIlroy made a rip-roaring start with three
birdies in his first four holes.
The 22-year-old Northern Irishman, who began his round at the 10th, stumbled with bogeys at the 14th and 17th but four birdies in the last 10 holes provided a satisfying finish.
"That's something I'm going to have to work on this afternoon on the practice range. I'm going to need to hit the ball in the fairway a lot more tomorrow and over the next three days"
U.S. Open champion McIlroy struck a superb tee shot at the short seventh to three feet, prompting Woods to yell 'great swing', and the galleries let out a roar when he then chipped in from the fringe of the green at the long eighth.
"A 67 is a good way to start 2012 but I didn't feel like I drove the ball particularly well," McIlroy told Sky Sports.
"I didn't hit it in the fairway enough.
"That's something I'm going to have to work on this afternoon on the practice range. I'm going to need to hit the ball in the fairway a lot more tomorrow and over the next three days."
Swede Karlsson, another early starter, sprayed the ball around the Abu Dhabi Golf Club as he missed a series of fairways and greens but made up for it with an exquisite short game that helped him craft seven birdies.
"I'm very proud of myself because I scored really well but I think I'm going to have to do quite a bit of work on the range
now," said the 42-year-old.
"I don't think I've seen any greens putt better than these, they are fantastic. They are so true and the only time they jump is through our shoe markings."