McIlroy, who won his first DP World Tour title at Emirates Golf Club in 2009 and lifted the trophy again in 2015, chipped in for an eagle on the 13th and also made four birdies to finish seven under par, four behind leader Justin Harding.
But the four-time major winner also let slip a number of opportunities on the layout’s new putting surfaces, most notably three-putting from 48 feet after driving the green on the 351-yard second hole.
“Could have been way lower,” Northern Ireland’s McIlroy said when asked to assess his score. “I certainly hit the ball well enough for it to be lower.
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“I missed a few opportunities but with the way these new greens are, they get a bit chewed up in the afternoons and start to wiggle a little bit if there isn’t a lot of speed on them.
“So yeah, I certainly hit the ball as good as I’ve done in a long time, and it could have been a few better but 66 this afternoon is a good score and sets me up for a nice weekend.
“With how I ended last year, I certainly found something, got a bit of momentum.
“I won on the PGA Tour and had a really good chance to win here in Dubai at the end of last season...it feels good.
“There’s so many ebbs and flows in this game and the career is so long that it’s sort of hard to compare one year to the next and how you’re feeling and how you’re hitting it.
“But I think looking back on my last 12, 14 years or whatever it’s been, the body of work is there, and I’ve played well when I haven’t felt so good and I played poorly when I felt really good.
“It’s just a matter of keep showing up each and every day and try to put the lowest score possible on the scorecard and move on.”
Harding added a 68 to his opening 65 to reach 11 under par, the South African aided by a spectacular eagle from 183 yards on the sixth, his 15th hole of the day.
“It might be the first time I’ve ever hit the fairway there, it’s a hole that I bail on over the years,” Harding said. “I had a good number which allowed me to pitch it 10 or 15 (yards) short of the hole and the cameraman actually said, ‘I like it’. I thought he was joking.
“It was just a good swing but an added bonus with going in makes up for a couple other things around the golf course.”
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