Graeme McDowell recovered from a nightmare start to finish level-par after his opening round at the DP World Championship in Dubai but remains six shots behind leader Alejandro Canizares of Spain.

The Portrush man was two-over after only three holes, and three-over at the turn, but posted consecutive birdies on 14, 15 and 16 for a 72.

That leaves him well behind Race to Dubai leader Henrik Stenson (-4), however, who tightened his grip on the trophy with an assured 68 that included five birdies and just a single bogey. 

Fellow title contenders Ian Poulter (three-under) and Justin Rose (-2) stayed in touch with the Swede after solid rounds.

Earlier, Rory McIlroy bogeyed the 18th to join Shane Lowry in the clubhouse on one-under-par.

McIlroy was two-under-par after the 17th hole, but found water on the par-five 18th to run up his third bogey of the day and had to settle for an opening 71.

"I feel like I played better than the score suggested and turned a 67 into a 71," said McIlroy, who topped the money list on both sides of the Atlantic last year but came into this event a lowly 46th on the Race to Dubai and still seeking a first win of the year.

"I got off to a great start, was three-under-par through four and playing really nicely and then got on a run of pars on the back nine.

"I had chances at the 10th, 14th, 15th and 16th and I'm coming off the course disappointed but I know there is a good score out there."

The 24-year-old - who was watched by tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki - added: "It's much better than it has been the last few months and I am playing better, which is important. It's good that the game is back on track."

Nine players can still win the Race to Dubai and become European number one, with FedEx Cup winner Stenson in the driving seat thanks to a lead of 213,000 points over Rose.

Stenson, Rose and McDowell control their own destiny and can secure the Race to Dubai by winning here, while a win for fourth-placed Poulter would mean Stenson needs to finish second to retain top spot.