DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rory McIlroy took another step toward regaining his form with his lowest score in more than three years, 9-under 63 while playing with Tiger Woods for a two-shot lead Thursday in the Dubai Desert Classic.
McIlroy was bogey-free in the PGA Europe event on the Maglis course at Emirates Golf Club, netting six birdies and an eagle during a 10-hole stretch in the middle of his opening round. He easily upstaged Woods, who was five back with 68.
Edoardo Molinari made eagle on the par-4 second en route to 65. The group at 66 included Stephen Gallacher, the defending champion who also played with Woods and McIlroy.
McIlroy had his best score since 63 in the Hong Kong Open in November 2010. "I played the ball really well from tee to green, drove the ball really well again," he said. "You can see how well I am driving it that I am leaving myself a lot of wedges into the green. So that's going to help."
The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland was No. 1 in the world at this point a year ago but went through a troublesome season adjusting to new equipment and coping with his first prolonged slump. He didn't win until the Australian Open in December. In his 2014 debut two weeks ago, McIlroy finished one shot back in Abu Dhabi, where he was given a two-shot penalty in the third round for not taking proper relief.
Woods hit just half of the fairways in regulation but taking only 25 putts helped him. The world's No. 1 player also made his first birdie of the year on a par 5, his opening hole at No. 10. He did not birdie any of the 12 par 5s he played last week at Torrey Pines, where he missed the 54-hole cut.
"I could have got a couple more out of it, just by making a couple putts from about 10 feet or so, but I hit a lot of good putts, which was nice," Woods said. "Last week I didn't do it, and it was nice to actually play well again."
PGA: Phil Mickelson's back was better than his game in the opening round of the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale.
Returning to play after withdrawing from Torrey Pines last Friday because of back pain, Mickelson opened his title defense with par 71. That left him seven behind leaders Bubba Watson and Y.E. Yang.
"My back is fine," Mickelson said. "My game was a little rusty."
He had five birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey at TPC Scottsdale.
Watson birdied four of the final six holes. He had eight birdies and a bogey. Yang birdied the final two holes and also had eight birdies and a bogey, playing the back nine in 6-under 30.
"This golf course, if your ball-striking is good, you can shoot some good numbers here," Watson said after hitting 17 greens in regulation.
Scottsdale residents Pat Perez, Kevin Stadler and Matt Jones were a stroke back at 65 along with Harris English, William McGirt, Greg Chalmers and Chris Kirk.