DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rory McIlroy and Brian Harman were cruising in the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
Then they came to their final stretch of holes.
The No. 2-ranked McIlroy bogeyed three of his last four to shoot 1-under 71 and Harman, The Open champion who also started at the 10th hole, finished bogey-par-double to close on the same score on Thursday.
The headline pair in the field were four strokes off the clubhouse lead held by Haotong Li, Andy Sullivan, Rasmus Hojgaard and Cameron Young when play was suspended because of darkness on Day 1 of one of the marquee events of the season on the European tour.
Young, the No. 25-ranked American playing in Dubai for the first time, birdied Nos. 16 and 17 before rolling in a 60-foot eagle putt from off the green at the par-5 18th to join the lead on 5-under 67.
Nine players in the 126-man field didn’t complete their opening round.
McIlroy, a three-time winner of the tournament and coming off a second place at last week’s Dubai Invitational behind Tommy Fleetwood, birdied five of his first 11 holes to be on the leaderboard at 4 under before he hit problems in the tough finish to the front nine.
At No. 6, he missed a par putt from inside 4 feet. At No. 7, he duffed his chip from just off the green and couldn’t save par from 30 feet.
He completed a hat trick of bogeys when he missed the eighth green from the middle of the fairway, was short again with his chip from the rough and missed a par putt from 10 feet.
Even No. 9, his final hole, involved some slight trauma for McIlroy. He drove into a bunker then left himself an up-and-down from 21 yards, which he just about made when his par putt squeezed into the right of the cup, prompting a sigh of relief from the four-time major champion.
Harman’s round was damaged by his 6 on the par-4 ninth that came after he hit his second shot out of the trees and into the water running down the left of the hole. The American had been on 4 under after 12 holes.
Harman is playing in his first European tour event not co-sanctioned with the PGA Tour, with his victory at the Open in Hoylake giving him more freedom on his schedule to play overseas.
Li, the Dubai Desert Classic champion in 2018 when he held off McIlroy down the stretch, birdied his last hole to shoot 67 and break free from a group on 4 under among the morning starters, continuing his career rebound after finishing last year with 14 missed cuts and two withdrawals in his last 16 events.
“Yeah, it happens. Just golf,” he said of his poor form in 2023. “I don’t know — hopefully doesn’t happen again.”
Li tied for 14th at the Dubai Invitational, the first event in 2024.
Adrian Meronk — fresh off being crowned the European tour’s player of 2023 — Nicolai Hojgaard, Richard Mansell, Soren Kjeldsen, Sebastian Garcia, Thorbjorn Olesen and Louis De Jager were all a shot off the lead after rounds of 68.
Fleetwood shot 69.