DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Rory McIlroy is playing the Dubai Invitational as a favor to a friend and to get in some early-year practice in pleasant weather conditions.

The way he has started, McIlroy might end up taking home the trophy.

The No. 2-ranked Northern Irishman made nine birdies in a bogey-free, 9-under 62 to take a two-shot clubhouse lead in the first round of the European tour event Thursday.

Yannik Paul of Germany was two shots behind at Dubai Creek Resort.

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McIlroy sees the Dubai event -- a tournament in a relaxed setting, with no cut and a 60-man field -- as a gentle way to ease into 2024.

In the team part of the event, he partnered with Abdullah Al Naboodah, a non-executive director at the European tour who helped set up the Dubai Invitational and is someone McIlroy counts as a good friend.

McIlroy certainly looked at home in Dubai, where he once lived and a place he often visits early in the year to fine-tune his game.

Starting at No. 10, he made six birdies in eight holes around the turn during a spell where he made six straight 3s.

He took the lead outright with a birdie from 5 feet at No. 7 then made another at his last hole after a great approach from the rough to the right of the fairway to inside 8 feet.