He also showed great patience - chances, after all, had gone abegging as he opened with 11 consecutive pars - before picking up three birdies in the last seven holes.
After that strong finish, which saw him sign for a three-under-par 69, the 28-year-old ended the day sitting handily placed, just three shots behind one of his playing partners, the ever-improving Tommy Fleetwood.
“It was nice,” admitted McIlroy afterwards, having taken the decision to shut down his 2017 campaign early to allow himself to prepare properly for this season. “I sort of knew what I was expecting out there but, at the same time, you never really know.”
Last year was the first season the Northern Irishman had gone without a win since 2008. A rib injury contributed to that, but his overall game just wasn’t quite up to scratch.
During a three-month lay-off, he had clearly done some good work in the gym. McIlroy made his eagerly-awaited return looking absolutely ripped.
But what about his golf? And how would he measure up against not only Fleetwood, last year’s Race to Dubai winner, but also world No 1 Dustin Johnson, the third member of the group?
McIlroy opened with a peach of a drive at the par-5 10th and was the only member of the trio to have a go at the green. He had the distance but a slightly pushed 3-wood clipped some trees before landing in the desert.
Given that he only had a wedge in hand, his approach at the next wasn’t the best, especially when Johnson knocked it stiff from a similar spot.
That was an aspect of his game the American improved enormously last year and it paid off again when he knocked another one close at the 13th to quickly move to two-under.
The best of a handful of good chances McIlroy had to move into red figures on his front came at the par-5 18th. After another majestic drive, he was left with an iron into the green and safely found the putting surface.
His eagle attempt raced a good 10 feet past, though, and you could sense his growing frustration as he duly walked off with a par.
The boost he badly needed came with his first birdie of the day at the third, which he followed by hitting his tee shot close at the seventh then getting down in two putts for a 4 at the next.
“I played very solid,” he said. “I drove the ball well and my iron play was pretty good. Once I got a little bit of momentum going, I could go with it and, after parring so many holes, anything under 70 was pretty good.
“I just need to keep doing that over the next three days and I should have a chance.”
This event is the first of eight McIlroy has pencilled in between now and The Masters in early April. That will mark his fourth chance to become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career Grand Slam.
“I was excited to get going,” he admitted. “It’s a season that I feel like I’m as prepared for as any season I’ve started as a professional.
“It was a great pairing to go out with Dustin and Tommy. Tommy had one of the best years out of anyone last year, winning The Race to Dubai and having a few wins. DJ is obviously No 1 player in the world.
“So to see where I’m at compared to where they are was nice. I feel like I’m not that far away, so it was a good day.”