In 10 appearances over the Earth Course, the Northern Irishman has two wins and five other top fives, with a worst finish of 20th.
An opening 65 moved him to seven under at the European Tour season finale but he will need to be at his very best all week to hold off an elite chasing pack, with the title of European Number One on the line.
McIlroy's last European Tour victory was at the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions but he has won twice on the PGA Tour this season - including last month when he beat Morikawa by one shot at the CJ Cup @ SUMMIT - to move back inside the top ten on the Official World Golf Ranking.
The former World Number One has recently made some changes to his team and is happy to be taking control of his game.
"I've been coming back here now for 12 years and it flies by," he said. "I think (I've got) a lot of experience around this place, a lot of great memories and memories of great shots and great putts.
"I feel I'm a big boy now. I've been around the block a bit and if I have problems or struggles, I should be able to sort them out myself. Instead of looking to others to fix my problems, I'm going to take responsibility a bit and that's what I did after the Ryder Cup.
"I've always been a very visual player. I always see shots. I don't know how much the shot tracer was out there today but people probably see me playing shots again. That's how I've always played golf and seen the game and I just need to get back to seeing it like that again.
"I think sometimes when you don't play your best, I maybe don't set my standards high enough sometimes. They are high but getting into contention in one Major this year isn't good enough for me.
I feel I'm a big boy now. I've been around the block a bit and if I have problems or struggles, I should be able to sort them out myself
"I've done way better than that before and I know I can again, especially with how I'm playing and feeling like I've got my golf game back, basically. So I'm excited for those four events next year and excited about the road ahead because I really feel like I'm on the right path."
Pulkkanen got up and down for a birdie on the par five second and while he gave the shot back at the fifth, he put a tee shot to tap-in range at the sixth and made a two putt birdie on the par five seventh.
A stunning approach to close range set up a birdie on the 11th but he dropped a shot on the next and at that point he was very much in the pack.
He holed a nine footer for birdie at the 16th however to get within one and then holed a bunker shot for eagle on the par five last to catapult himself into the lead.
While Pulkkanen was having a fast finish, McIlroy was producing a fast start, holing a 25 foot left to righter at the first and then putting a stunning second to 13 feet at the second for an eagle.
An approach to two feet at the sixth was followed by a two putt birdie at the seventh and the four time Major Champion was tied at the top.
A 16 footer at the eighth handed him the solo lead but he flew the green at the ninth and made a first bogey of the day to turn at five under.
That soon became a four way tie with Hansen and Bezuidenhout joining the pack but an approach to close range at the tenth edged McIlroy ahead once more.
A wonderful little pitch helped the 32-year-old get up and down on the last and lead by two but Morikawa was stalking.
The Open Champion had holed a 15 footer from just off the green at the second and then got up and down from a fairway bunker at the third before putting a tee shot to four feet at the sixth and making a two putt birdie at the seventh.
He dropped a shot at the tenth but another excellent bunker shot set up a birdie at the 14th and he left himself ten feet at the next to sit just two back.
A three putt on the 17th then saw him slip to four under alongside fellow American Johannes Veerman, English duo Marcus Armitage and Sam Horsfield, Swede Alexander Björk, Spaniard Sergio Garcia, Dane Nicolai Højgaard, German Martin Kaymer, Scot Robert MacIntyre and Pole Adrian Meronk.
"It was pretty solid throughout," said Morikawa. "Obviously the two bogeys were a little unenforced but I made a few birdies out there and kept the momentum going and it was a good way to start the first rounds out here."
Last week's winner Hansen took advantage of all four of the par fives and also hit smart approaches into the first and tenth, dropping his only shot of the day on the fourth.
A 42 foot birdie putt on the 12th was the highlight of Bezuidenhout's round, added to gains on the first, second, fifth, 15th and 16th and a bogey on the ninth.