Former Masters and Open champion Mark O'Meara says 19-year-old Ulsterman Rory McIlroy's ball-striking is better than that of Tiger Woods at the same age. 

O'Meara was fulsome in his praise after playing alongside McIlroy, who shot 64 at the Dubai Desert Classic. 

"Ball-striking wise at 19 he's probably better than Tiger was at 19," he said. "His technique I think is better and there's no reason why he can't win quite a few tournaments and a lot of major championships. He's got it." 

McIlroy's opening eight-under-par round was enough to see him top the leaderboard in Dubai at the end of day one. 

O'Meara is a long-time close friend and mentor to Woods but was happy to compare the young Irish player to the multiple major winner. 

"Certainly Tiger has developed his game and swing over the years and made modifications to be able to hit the ball pin-high, but Rory is already doing that and he's 19 so he's already a step ahead," he said. 

The first time that McIlroy came into close contact with O'Meara was in 1999 when as a 10-year-old he asked him to autograph a ball. 

On that occasion O'Meara lost to Colin Montgomerie in the World Matchplay tournament at Wentworth and McIlroy had travelled from his native Holywood to watch.

"Monty beat him in the final, but in the morning he holed a bunker shot out of the trap on 18 and I've got his golf ball from it. He signed it and I've still got it," said McIlroy. 

Nearly 10 years have passed since that day and now McIlroy is the one challenging for titles. He has come close already with play-off losses in the European Masters and this season's Hong Kong Open and is up to 39th in the world with a debut at the Masters to come in April. 

McIlroy says at the moment it's all about giving himself a chance on the final back nine to pull off a first tournament win. 

"As long as I keep getting myself into the position on Sunday all of those experiences will become valuable," he said. 

"Sooner or later I'll be able to win one. But it's not my main priority. "My main priority is just to try and get in there in contention on the back nine on Sunday." 

Also coming into focus for the Ulsterman is the Ryder Cup with new captain Colin Montgomerie looking out for new talent to take on the Americans at Celtic Manor. 

McIlroy has only played with him once but chats to him quite often and has a lot of respect for the Scot. 

"I view the Ryder Cup as a bonus for playing well throughout the year, but it's not a goal," he said. "It's not really a target but if you play well enough, you're going to get on the team." 

McIlroy had nine birdies and one bogey in his 64 to lead by a stroke in the clubhouse from European No 1 Robert Karlsson.

Graeme McDowell finished with a double bogey six at the ninth to card a two under par 70 on his 2009 debut with Rookie of the Year hopeful Gareth Maybin on two-under with four holes of his first round to complete on Friday.

It was a disappointing day for the rest of the Irish with Peter Lawrie and Damien McGrane shooting 73, Darren Clarke 74 and Gary Murphy a three-over 75.

Paul McGinley was mongst the later starters and managed to play the front nine in one-over par before play was suspended due to darkness.