Shanghai: Rory McIlroy enjoyed one of his best rounds of a disappointing season to storm into a two-shot lead over a star-studded field at the $8.5 million WGC-HSBC Champions tournament on Thursday.
Displaying a deft short game with a new lob wedge, McIlroy reeled off eight birdies en route to a first round seven-under-par 65 at the World Golf Championship event in Sheshan.
Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Welshman Jamie Donaldson are tied for second on five-under, one ahead of a group of four players that includes American prospect Jordan Spieth and Briton Justin Rose.
After cruising along nicely for 16 holes, British Open champion and two-time winner of this event Phil Mickelson looked primed to challenge McIlroy's lead until he suffered a dramatic late-round meltdown to fall off the pace.
The left-hander dropped four strokes at the par-five eighth, his 17th, where he twice found the pond in front of the green, and also dropped a shot at the ninth after pulling his second into the water for a one-under 71.
McIlroy, on the other hand, had no such misadventures with his only dropped shot coming on the 11th hole, his second of the round.
"It's only one round but it's definitely the way I wanted and needed to start this week," said the two-time major champion, who was ranked number one in the world as recently as March but has yet to record a victory this season.
However, refreshed after a recent four-week break and armed with a new driver and new ball, the world number six looked to have rediscovered the swagger that carried him to order of merit titles on the European and PGA Tours a year ago.
His improvement was not readily apparent in his tie for 27th at last week's BMW Masters, also played in Shanghai, but when he beat Tiger Woods in an exhibition on Monday, his timing and demeanour around the course looked like the McIlroy of old.
"Last week I wasn't reading the greens very well and my pace was off as well and when you have that combination you're not going to hole any putts," he said
"I let a couple of putts get away from me today - a couple of the downhill ones - but I was able to hole the ones coming back. And with the irons, I pretty much had the ball under control all day. I hit a couple of loose drives but it's one of the best rounds I've played (this year).
"I shot 64 at Boston (Deutsche Bank Championship) but this is probably better because of a little trickier conditions."
McIlroy is a surprising 62nd on the European Tour's Race to Dubai. Only the top 60 qualify for the season-ending event in a fortnight, so he is not quite guaranteed a spot yet, but has made a huge step in the right direction.
"I obviously want to play myself into Dubai and pick up my first win of the season," he said.
Fernandez-Castano, meanwhile, continued the form that carried him to victory at the BMW Masters on Sunday.
"I was feeling a little tired on Tuesday but I guess it's normal after all the adrenaline rush," he said. "I was feeling a little tired but I wasn't in the pro-am yesterday so I took a good rest and I'm feeling 100 percent."
Donaldson is also feeling refreshed after suffering from jet-lag last week.
"I didn't sleep great last week but I'm fully acclimatised now so there are no excuses," said Donaldson, who eagled the par-four 16th after driving the green.