World number three Rory McIlroy tightened his grip on the Race to Dubai despite being frustrated by his lowest round ever at the DP World Tour Championship.
McIlroy fired eight birdies and one bogey in a third-round 65 to lie one shot behind England's Andy Sullivan but crucially four ahead of Danny Willett, his nearest rival in the battle to be crowned European number one.
“I guess you can’t really walk off this golf course, especially in these conditions, and shoot seven under and not feel good about yourself,” said McIlroy, who missed from four feet for birdie on the 18th. “But at the same time, I feel like it could have been a lot better.
“I played fantastically well. I could have been five under through five holes easily. I hit the ball beautifully. Everything was just firing today and that’s why I’m walking off the golf course a little bit disappointed because that 65 could have easily been a 62 or a 61.
“The good thing is there’s still one round of golf left. If it had been the final day, I’d be kicking myself with some of the chances I missed. I’m playing lovely so it bodes well for tomorrow. It’s exactly where I want to be, in contention going into Sunday, so it’s all good.”
Asked about trying to win the Race to Dubai for the third time in four years, the 26-year-old added: “It’s just a matter of trying to focus on myself, try and win the golf tournament, and that’s all I can do.
“It’s my last round of the year and I want to make the most of it. I’d love to finish the year on a high and win the Race to Dubai and I guess more importantly, win this tournament. Another tournament win, that’s what I really want.
“At the end of the season, if I walk away with four wins, it’s still pretty good. Even though it wasn’t the season that I wanted, it would just be huge to walk away here on a high tomorrow.”
McIlroy had moved into the outright lead with a hat-trick of birdies from the 13th, but Sullivan responded superbly with birdies on the 15th and 17th to card a 68 and edge back in front, much to the delight of his 30-strong fan club from Nuneaton.
“It would be an absolute dream come true to win tomorrow when playing with Rory in the final round,” said Sullivan, who used to stack shelves in a supermarket to fund his golf but is the only three-time winner on the European Tour this season. “I’ll try not to think about it too much to be honest.
“It’s great. There’s no pressure on me. I’m not expected to win, am I? No one is going to expect me to beat him tomorrow. So for me it’s a nice position to be in, one in front. I’m going to go out and play golf and enjoy watching the (former) world number one play golf.
“I’ve won three different ways this year, one in a play-off, once coming from behind and the other leading from the front. I’ll be trying to pull on as much experience as I’ve got. He’s got a little bit more than me, but I’ll just go out there and try and do my best and play as good of golf as I can and hopefully the putter stays hot.”
Willett trails McIlroy by just 1,613 points in the Race to Dubai but looked to be drifting out of contention before playing his last five holes in four under par, carding birdies on the 14th and 18th and holing from 30 feet for eagle on the 15th after driving the green.
“It was a good day,” Willett said after signing for a 67.
“I kept digging in and looking at the leaderboard and knowing people were shooting low scores helped give us a kick up the rear. From nowhere we gained three shots on the field and got back into the mix.
“I don’t think we are going to see Rory coming backwards so we need to shoot a good round tomorrow and see what happens.”
American Ryder Cup star Patrick Reed, who lost a play-off for the BMW Masters on Sunday, is three off the lead after a 68, with Byeong Hun An and Emiliano Grillo a shot further back.
Former US Open champion Justin Rose crashed out of contention with a 78.
Shane Lowry enjoyed his best round of the week, a three-under 69 leaving him on two under going into Sunday's final round.