Donaldson looked like showing illustrious playing partners McIlroy and Phil Mickelson how it was done in the early stages of the opening round, picking up birdies at the 10th, 13th and 15th, the latter coming from a matter of inches as he narrowly missed a hole-in-one.
However, a wayward approach to the 14th had already cost Donaldson a bogey five and when he hit a near-identical shot into the 16th, the ball bounced over a cart path and nestled in rocks on the edge of a water hazard.
From there the Welshman took a penalty drop, pitched onto the green and two-putted for a double-bogey six, dropping him back to level par and alongside McIlroy and Mickelson.
McIlroy, who ended 2013 in fine form with his only victory of the year in the Australian Open, was driving the ball superbly but struggling to get close to the pin with his irons.
In contrast, Mickelson's much praised new driver - which had the Open champion talking excitedly about a career-best season - sent him 60 yards off line on the opening hole, while two birdie putts lipped out to leave the five-time major winner a frustrated figure.
McIlroy finally got into red figures on the 18th, pitching to eight feet and rolling in the birdie putt and at one under par was just two off the early lead held by Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer and England's Tyrrell Hatton.
Kaymer, who won here in 2008, 2010 and 2011, had recovered from an early bogey with four birdies in the next five holes, while Hatton had birdied the first, second and seventh.