West Australian Lee has to win the star-studded US$9 million event at the Jumeirah Golf Estates to take the Race to Dubai title as the Tour's Order of Merit winner but he could only start with a level par 72 to lie seven shots off the searing pace being set by McIlroy.

Fresh from earning his 20th career victory on the PGA Tour at the CJ Cup last month, McIlroy opened with a birdie-eagle flourish on Thursday and went on to shoot a seven-under-par 65 to give himself a two-shot lead.

But of the six players still in with a chance of winning the Race to Dubai, American Collin Morikawa, the current leader, looks in fine shape after opening up with a 68.

If Lee, currently lying fifth, is to win the overall Race, he must not only win the tournament but hope that those ahead of him – Morikawa, Billy Horschel and Tyrrell Hatton – have a poor week.

RIGHT: Collin Morikawa made a solid start to his bid to become the first American winner of the Race to Dubai. PHOTO: Warren Little/Getty Images.

Neither option seemed likely on the evidence of the first day's action, with Scottish Open winner Lee, who's enjoyed top-10 finishes in his last three events, bogeying two and birdieing two of the opening seven holes while Morikawa was already four-under after seven.

The 23-year-old Western Australian birdied the long 14th to go under par for the first time in his round but a bogey at the 17th ensured that he was stuck way back in the pack in joint 36th place alongside his compatriot Lucas Herbert, a recent winner on the PGA Tour.

The best of the three Aussies in action was Jason Scrivener, who shot a 71 but he was still six shots behind McIlroy.

Northern Ireland's four-time major winner is finding his best form again but is not in contention for a fourth Race to Dubai title.

"Getting into contention in one major this year isn't good enough for me – I've done way better than that before and I know I can again, especially with how I am playing," he said on Sky Sports.

"I'm feeling like I've got my golf game back, basically."

At the last hole, where he hit a pitch from the front of the green to within four feet, he rolled in the putt for a sixth birdie of his round.

Morikawa, looking to become the first player from the United States to be the European No.1, started the tournament with a narrow lead over another American, Billy Horschel, in the standings.

They played together in the final group but while Horschel only made his first birdie at the 17th hole in a two-over 74, Open champ Morikawa was in much better shape with his game.

The only players above him were McIlroy and three who shared second place after rounds of 67 – Tapio Pulkkanen, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Joachim B. Hansen, the winner of last week's Dubai Championship.