Couples on Rory: "When a guy that talented gets his game back, he will dominate"
Nike were quick to tweet a picture of Rory McIlroy smashing their driver at the eighth. There were few similar tweets last year. 

Nike were quick to tweet a picture of Rory McIlroy smashing their driver at the eighth. There were few similar tweets last year. 

As signals of intent go, this was a slap across the face with a leather gauntlet. 

Rory McIlroy shot a smooth 63 to Tiger Woods' somewhat stuttering 68 in the opening round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic that said everything about his desire to get back his world No 1 ranking.

The 24-year old might have had a horrific 2013 but as veteran Fred Couples pointed out at the Emirates Golf Club today, with his confidence on the rise, he has the game and the talent to dominate the game again.

"With Rory, I think it's not a sprint, it's a marathon," the 54-year old former Masters and Dubai Desert Classic winner said after an opening 70.

"This is my 34th year on tour and I can look back and tell Rory, 'Hey, when I was 26 years old I didn't play well one year but it didn't slow me down. Just keep pushing, keep playing. 

"When a guy that talented gets his game back, he will dominate. It is just a matter of for how long and if you can just keep away from people talking about it, you'll do fine."

McIlroy made seven birdies and an eagle in his round to lead by three shots from the other member of his threeball, Scotland's Stephen Gallacher, South Africa's Richard Sterne and Julien Quesne of France, who was eight under playing his final hole but found water and double bogeyed.

"It was good. It was really nice," McIlroy said, barely containing his delight. "I played really well from tee to green, drove the ball well again. 

"I think I only missed a couple of fairways and only missed one green where I had to really get it up and down.

"I took advantage of how I am driving the ball and just need to do more of the same the next three days."

The highlight of McIlroy's round was an eagle at the third, his 12th, where he hit a high, hard five wood to 10 feet.

"It was into the wind, 245 front, 250 pin and I hit it as hard and as high as I could and I got it to land softly and it was nice to hole the putt," said McIlroy, who ominously revealed afterwards that his wedge game can still improve.

Asked how close he was to his best, he told Sky Sports: "It's close, obviously. This year I've shot a couple of good rounds so far this year. This is a little lower than I went in Abu Dhabi and I feel very comfortable with my game."

As for Woods, McIlroy said they talk about "anything and everything" on the course. 

Tiger Woods in the media scrum after his 68. Picture via  @European_Tour

Tiger Woods in the media scrum after his 68. Picture via @European_Tour

"Different sports, swings, everything. We were talking a little bit about Hogan. All sorts of stuff."

Woods began his 2014 campaign in the Farmers Insurance Open last week, but carded a third round of 79 at Torrey Pines - a venue where he has won eight times - to miss the 54-hole cut.

The world number one insisted his game was "just a fraction off" and demonstrated that with a number of wayward drives, but made birdies on the three par fives on the back nine and picked up another shot on the 15th to reach the turn in four under.

"He's experienced. He's a true pro, he knows there are no pictures on the scorecard and he started hitting it a lot better by the end of the round," McIlroy said of his Nike stablemate.

"But to shoot the score he did on our front nine was a good effort."

Woods added: "I played all right today. I probably could have got a couple more out of it. I missed a couple of putts from 10 feet but I didn't hit a bad putt today which was nice, it was just that sometimes the grain snagged it, grabbed it pretty hard at the end."

Asked about his misses left off the tee, Woods said: "I was trying to hit pull-cuts and I got the pull right. I just didn't get the cut right. I just aimed further right and still hoped for my pull cut and get it out there. 

"When I do it right I can hit that cut pretty far. I was getting it out there, near his [Rory's] drive. We play two totally different games. He draws the ball, I cut it. It was nice to start hitting that hot cut again." 

The 38-year-old revealed he has been working on shortening his backswing with his coach Sean Foley in an effort to take pressure off his knee.

"We didn't like where I was with my last coach," Woods said of his backswing. "It got way too long and I have always played my best from a shorter position. 

"Back in my younger days on tour, it was even shorter than it is now. It's just that I can't reload it like I used to. 

"I used to snap the knee at the end to get the power and the rotation. If I did that now, I'd destroy the knee just like I did before.

"That's one of the reasons why I had so many operations on it.  So if I put it on a short position like that, without snapping at the end, I can get it out there."

Michael Hoey carded a two under 70 and Gareth Maybin a 71 while out on the course, Damien McGrane eagled the 10th to get to five under par for the day and sit alone in fifth place.