Rory McIlroy acknowledges the galleries after picking up another birdie during his nine-under-par 63 in Dubai.

Story highlights

Rory McIlroy leads after first round of Dubai Desert Classic

Former world number one shoots nine-under-par 63

Current top ranked Tiger Woods cards a bogey-free 68

Edoardo Molinari of Italy in second place on seven-under

CNN  — 

Rory McIlroy believes he is “close” to the form that took him to the top of the world rankings and two major titles and after carding a flawless nine-under 63 to lead the Dubai Desert Classic Thursday few could disagree.

Certainly not playing partner and defending champion Stephen Gallacher, who said McIlroy had played “sublime golf” to take a two-shot lead after the first round on the Majils course.

Gallacher also compiled a fine round of 66 and was not overawed by playing with both McIlroy and current world number one Tiger Woods, who is handily placed after a 68.

McIlroy, whose travails in 2013 are well documented, was certainly not getting carried away with his efforts in perfect morning conditions, describing them as “good” and my best round “in a while.”

The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland has a two-shot lead over later starter Edoardo Molinari of Italy and knows he will have to maintain his form through the weekend.

Read: Can McIlroy turn tables on Woods in 2014?

“I took advantage of how I am driving the ball and just need to do more of the same the next three days,” he told the official European Tour website.

McIlroy finished 2013 with a victory in the Australian Open and has started the new calendar year by claiming second in Abu Dhabi, where his victory hopes were dashed by a two-shot penalty in the opening round.

Asked how close he was to peak form, McIlroy added: “It’s close, obviously. This year I’ve shot a couple of good rounds. This is a little lower than I went in Abu Dhabi and I feel very comfortable with my game.”

Last year both he and then new Nike stablemate Woods missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and while the American improved rapidly to claim five PGA Tour titles, McIlroy continued to struggle until the back end of the season, slipping to sixth in the rankings.

Read: McIlroy and Mickelson fall short in Abu Dhabi

But with a new management team in place and marriage to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki in the offing, McIlroy has buckled down to a strict practice regime.

“I realize that I’ve worked really hard in the last couple of months to get to this point and I’ve realized what I needed to work on, what I need to base my game on and around,” he said.

“Okay it may feel easy and these scores may look somewhat routine out there, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes to actually be able to go out and shoot scores like this.”

Woods missed the cut for the final round at Torrey Pines in his opening tournament of the PGA Tour season last week, but was more satisfied with his efforts in the European Tour event.

Read: Rory and Caroline announce engagement

“I played all right today. I probably could have got a couple more out of it. I didn’t hit a bad putt today which was nice, it was just that sometimes the grain grabbed it pretty hard at the end,” he said.

Gallacher was left in a five-strong chasing group on 66 as the trio were cumulatively 19-under-par.

“Me and Tiger had a couple of holes where we had great saves of par but it was one of those days where we took advantage of the conditions, it was quite benign,” he said.

Sixty eight players from the 132-strong field broke the par of 72, with former major champions Fred Couples and John Daly on two-under 70.

Abu Dhabi winner Pablo Larrazabal struggled to a two-over 74, the same mark as 2012 British Open champion Ernie Els and with work to do to make the cut.

Read: Victory salvages ‘frustrating’ 2013 for McIlroy