McIlroy struggled to a 3-over 75 to open the European Tour's season finale, a score that left him nine shots behind Lee Westwood and ahead of only three players in the 60-man field. It also marked McIlroy's first over-par score on the Earth Course in 29 competitive rounds, where his previous high was an even-par 72.
McIlroy bogeyed his opening hole and three of his first six to begin the day in a bit of a hole. He didn't card a birdie until No. 14, then made a double bogey on the par-4 16th after needing two tries to extricate his ball from a greenside water hazard.
McIlroy was not the only big name to get off to a slow start, as none of the four players who could win the season-long Race to Dubai shot better than a 1-under 71.
Danny Willett and last week's winner, Alex Noren, are both tied at 1 under and five behind Westwood, while Race to Dubai leader Henrik Stenson opened with an even-par 72 and appears three rounds away from lifting the trophy for the second time since 2013.