Australian Jason Scrivener is in second place, a shot off the lead, after shooting a seven-under 65 at the first-round of the Abu Dhabi Championship.
The South African-born 33-year-old, who moved to Perth when he was ten, is seeking his first win on the European Tour.
Ahead of him is Luke Donald, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, who upstaged many players who will be in his team in Rome.
Donald rolled in a four-foot putt at No. 9 -- his last hole -- to close with four straight birdies on Thursday and have nine in total on his card at the start of one of the top events on the European tour schedule, and the first of 2023.
The 45-year-old Englishman's last title was in 2012, when he was the world's top-ranked golfer and a regular winner on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now ranked No. 541, Donald's name is rarely seen on leaderboards but his profile has been raised by getting the Ryder Cup captaincy.
Win at Yas Island Links this week and he might be in with a chance of being a playing captain.
"It was 1975, I think, the last time that happened," Donald said, with a smile. "No, we are a long way from that."
Still, the likes of Shane Lowry, Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood -- players expected to be in Europe's team -- couldn't live with Donald and Scrivener on a day when scoring was lower among the morning starters before wind picked up.
Also shooting 65 with Scrivener was Guido Migliozzi, an Italian with a chance of making the Ryder Cup team. Seamus Power, an Irishman also with Ryder Cup hopes, had a 66 and was alone in fourth place.
Lowry, the highest-ranked player in the field, and rejuvenated Italian Francesco Molinari, coming off a good week at the Hero Cup last week, were in a group on 5 under par after 67s.
Australia's Min-Woo Lee shot 68, as did Fleetwood, who was playing on his 32nd birthday and Henrik Stenson, playing his first event on the European tour since losing the Ryder Cup captaincy for joining LIV Golf six months ago.