The 22-year-old Northern Irishman finished the first round with a 6-under 66, just three shots behind the tear-away leader, Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
Cabrera-Bello had the chance to achieve The European Tour’s first 59 when he stood on his 12th tee nine under par.
It left him needing four more birdies to achieve the magic figure, but the 27 year old Spaniard parred in for a 63 and a two stroke lead over German Marcel Siem and Scotland’s Scott Jamieson.
US Open Champion McIlroy was deep in the pack at one over after eight, but a birdie on the difficult ninth sparked him into life and by the time he almost holed-in-one on the 15th he was up to five under.
Two glorious shots to the 564 yard 18th gave him an opportunity to close with an eagle, but the 2009 winner – it was his first professional victory – had to be content with two-putting for another birdie.
World Number Four Martin Kaymer eagled the last to match Mclroy’s 66, Lee Westwood had a 69, last week’s winner Paul Lawrie a 71 after closing with a double bogey on the ninth and Abu Dhabi champion Robert Rock a 73.
John Daly – fourth last week in Qatar – had a 71 that included a triple-bogey seven on the ninth.
The 2012 Dubai Desert Classic is being telecast in Australian on Fox Sports with the 2nd live on Friday 8.30pm – 12 midnight, and the final round live on Sunday 8pm – Midnight.