Rory McIlroy produced a masterclass, for the most part, yet was also required to demonstrate some feats of escapology in navigating his way to a familiar position – number one – as a third round 65 for a total of 15-under-par 201 gave him a clear lead in the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at The Emirates Golf Club.
The 33-year-old Northern Irishman, in his first competitive tournament of the year, was still a little ring-rusty at times but a stunning start – birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie in his opening four holes – provided the platform to move to the top of the leaderboard, his only dropped shot coming on the par five 18th, a hole which proved his Achilles heel a year ago.
In a tournament disrupted by stormy weather for the opening two days and consequently moved to a Monday finish in what is a Rolex Series event – with €1.4 million to the winner – McIlroy’s third round moved him into pole position to claimed a third career Dubai Desert Classic, with a three stroke cushion over nearest challengers Callum Shinkwin and Dan Bradbury.
The two Englishmen and those further adrift will have their work cut out to play catch-up on McIlroy, who spent time on the range on Saturday night working on his driver which had been uncharacteristically poor in the opening two rounds. The fruit of that labour was evident in a quite stunning opening stretch: his play off the tee and on approach was perfection itself, as he holed from inside four feet on the first, six feet on the second, a tap-in on the par fivr third and from five feet on the fourth.
“It was much better,” said McIlroy of his play. “Obviously, I got off to a great start with those four birdies in a row, then hit a little bit of a lull after that, and then kick-started again with obviously three birdies in a row on 13, 14 and 15.”
Indeed, it wasn’t all smooth. On the 10th, he pulled his drive into the waste area yet, with his ball sitting atop a bush, he opted not to take a penalty drop and instead played a remarkable rescue shot up to the fairway, while on the 11th he relied on his putter to make a 12-footer for par after missing the green with his tee-shot to the par three.
The hat-trick of birdies from the 13th was followed by another birdie on the 17th and the only bogey of his round came on the 18th, where – similar to a year ago when he went flag hunting on the 72nd hole when holding the lead – his approach came up short in the water.
“It felt like the good golf came in sort of two bursts today, and then the rest of it, it was okay. I held it together. I still don’t feel quite in control of my game. But it was much better than yesterday, so that was a positive . . . I felt like I drove the ball better. The statistics probably wouldn’t say that but I drove the ball a lot better which put me in positions to attack and make birdies.
“It’s nearly there. It’s not quite there, but I’m making the most of the golf shots that I’m hitting and putting well. I’m playing really efficient golf right now with the chances I’m giving myself. I’m converting, and that’s the reason I’m on the score that I am,” said McIlroy, adding:
“It would be great [to win the tournament for a third time]. I love this golf course. I love this tournament. I’ve won here a couple of times. This is my first start of the year. I don’t think I’ve ever won in my first start of the year. I had plenty of chances at Abu Dhabi down the road over the years, and never quite got it done. So [this] is a nice opportunity to try to do something that I’ve never done before.”