TWO of the three European Tour events so far this year have thrown up unlikely last-day scenarios. Surely, though, we won’t see Rory McIlroy join Charl Schwartzel (South African Open) and Martin Kaymer (HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship) in becoming a major champion to fritter away a big lead already this year.
McIlroy, the winner four years ago, has one hand back on the coffee pot, the iconic trophy for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. On 20-under-par after three rounds, he’s four clear of Dane Morten Ørum Madsen, with Englishman Lee Westwood two further back in third.
“There’s only one winner tomorrow,” declared Marc Warren after playing in the same group as McIlroy as the 25-year-old increased a one-shot overnight lead into a comfortable position at the Emirates Golf Club.
Following three successive second-place finishes – in the Dunhill Links, DP World Tour Championship and HSBC Championship – McIlroy is determined not to let this one slip away over the Majlis Course.
After racing out in five-under, the four-times major winner looked set to turn the last two days into a procession before becoming “p***ed off” with himself following some “mental mistakes” coming home.
Having followed up his best-of-the-week 63 on Friday with a flawless six-birdie 66, Madsen had closed within three of the lead when he finished, only for McIlroy to follow a 17th-hole birdie to go four clear by then getting up and down to save par at the last after dumping his approach into the water.
“I didn’t put a foot wrong on the front nine and when I missed a little short putt on ten, it seemed like that momentum I had just sort of went away and I had to scramble a little bit for pars coming in,” said the Open and US Open champion.
“I was getting a little p***ed off – it’s good to have that attitude when you are leading a tournament – because I was making things difficult for myself, but it was nice to finish how I did.”
If McIlroy is being distracted by his upcoming appearance in the witness box in the High Court in Dublin – he’s due to make that on Tuesday as the row with his former management company reaches a very public conclusion that could be damaging to him – he’s doing a good job of hiding it. The leader hasn’t dropped a shot since his final hole in the opening round.
McIlroy isn’t counting any chickens yet – and is wise to after what happened to both Schwartzel and Kaymer. But he rarely fails to deliver when out in front.
“It’s just a matter of sticking to the same gameplan, being aggressive and giving myself as many chances for birdies as I can,” he said.
In tricker conditions than the first two days – a gentle breeze was blowing and also firmed up the greens – Warren and Stephen Gallacher were among those who soon found themselves trying desperately to hang on to McIlroy’s coat-tails.
A “poor swing” with his tee shot at the second led to Warren losing early ground on his playing partner and nothing positive really happened for him thereafter. A one-over 73 left him in a logjam on 12-under – one behind Gallacher.
Bidding to win this event for the third year running, the Bathgate man dropped nine behind McIlroy after going out in one under but, as always here, picked up shots coming home. Tied for fourth on 13-under, he knows it will be difficult to catch the best player on the planet but is ready to give it a go.
“Any No.1 is normally pretty good and Rory is no exception – five-under for the front nine was brilliant today,” said Gallacher. “But, for the fourth year in a row here, I’m in contention with a round to go so we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
As play concluded on a day when Paul Lawrie moved into the top 20 on the back of 66 that contained seven birdies and could easily have been more, it was left to Warren to sum up how lucky golf is to have McIlroy as its poster boy at present. “On and off the course, he’s the most normal superstar you’ll find,” he declared with the utmost sincerity.