HE ADMITTED it himself. If it hadn’t been for a visit to Aviemore last year, Brooks Koepka wouldn’t be partnering Rory McIlroy in the final group in today’s third round of the £1.5 million Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Despite a short missed putt stopping his momentum just as he was threatening to open up a tidy cushion at the halfway stage, a resurgent McIlroy is in a strong position to lay down an early marker in 2014.
On 11-under-par, having added a 70 to his opening 63 at the Emirates Golf Club, the 24-year-old leads by one from Koepka, with Frenchman Julien Quesne, England’s Danny Willett and Irishman Damien McGrane all a further stroke back.
Just four adrift after a battling 71, defending champion Stephen Gallacher is still hanging on to McIlroy’s coat-tails, but it will take two very low weekend rounds for world No 1 Tiger Woods to get in the mix after slipping eight off the pace after an erratic 73.
Koepka’s seven-under 65 was the day’s joint-best effort along with Willett, thrusting the American into the spotlight less than a year after he won the Scottish Hydro Challenge at Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore.
That was his third victory of the season on the second-tier circuit, earning him instant promotion to the main Tour, and the day after the success in the shadow of the Cairngorms he won a 36-hole qualifier at Sunningdale for last year’s Open Championship. “Winning in Aviemore was big – it’s the reason I’m standing here and playing in the same group as Rory McIlroy tomorrow,” the 23-year-old told The Scotsman after picking up three birdies in his first four holes then four more in five holes from the 17th after he’d started at the tenth. “I took a lot of confidence from that and I can build on it this season.”
Koepka and compatriot and flatmate, Peter Uihlein, last year’s European Tour Rookie of the Year, have become trend-setters by leaving America to cut their professional teeth on this side of the Atlantic. Since joining the paid ranks after the 2012 US Open, Koepka has teed up in 39 tournaments in 21 countries on six different Tours.
“It’s crazy but I’ve enjoyed it,” he admitted. “Travelling the world at 23 is not bad and it’s been nice to come here this week and see what Dubai is all about. I’m playing the Honda Classic next month on the PGA Tour, but I plan to keep playing the European Tour forever, going back and forth.”
Two ahead at the start, McIlroy opened with a bogey but was beginning to motor again when he reached the turn in 35, two-under, then birdied the tenth to move to 12-under for the tournament. However, a bad read saw him miss from two feet for par at the long 13th and another shot went at the 16th before a closing birdie made last night’s dinner with fiancé Caroline Wozniacki, who is here watching, more palatable.
“It’s a little frustrating as the back nine is where you want to build your score, but the birdie at the last was a nice positive way to finish and I’ll go back tonight and regroup and realise that I’m still leading the tournament,” said McIlroy. “It was a round that could have been much better, but, hopefully, that was my bad round out of the way and I can shoot a couple of better ones at the weekend and lift the trophy.”
Gallacher isn’t about to give up that magnificent silver coffee pot without a fight, however. He dropped three shots around the turn, but covered the last six in two-under, finishing with a birdie at the 18th, where he holed a five-footer.
“I’m still right in there,” insisted the 39-year-old, who is confident he won’t suffer a deflated reaction to having Jamie Donaldson, his Seve Trophy team-mate for company today, instead of McIlroy and Woods.
The latter endured a frustrating day as he slipped to a share of 44th place on three-under. “I was on so many parts of the golf course today that I got to meet so many people, signed so many autographs out there, and gave a lot of balls away,” he joked afterwards when hosting a junior clinic along with Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara.
“I felt great with the putter but feeling great with it from 40-50 feet is not exactly the best thing. I just didn’t hit it close enough. I didn’t hit it well and had a bad warm up, as well – just one of those days. I need a lot of wind on the weekend and play two great rounds.”
After being in danger of missing the cut when he bogeyed the 16th, Couples then birdied the final two holes to sit alongside Woods. It meant the former Masters champion will not be able to use the two 50-yard line tickets he’d bought for tomorrow’s Superbowl between Seattle Seahawks, his team, and the Denver Broncos.
One player to agonisingly miss the cut was David Drysdale, who, on the back of Simon Dyson threatening to give Tour players a bad name, should be applauded for calling a penalty on himself when he inadvertently hit a spike mark as he brushed loose grass away on the 16th green. The resultant two-shot punishment saw him fall just the wrong side of the two-under-par cut-off.