He came from seven shots behind heading into the final round at Wentworth to win the BMW PGA Championship two years ago, so Rory McIlroy’s hopes of making a successful defence of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title tomorrow certainly can’t be discounted.
Eight off the lead and with 20 players to try and leapfrog in the final circuit on the Majlis Course, though, the world No 2 is facing a task as tall as some of the skyscrapers that provide a stunning backdrop for the Emirates Golf Club.
McIlroy, bidding to win here for a third time after this event also produced his professional victory in 2008, came home in 31, five-under-par, to keep his slim title hopes alive. There was no hiding his feeling of frustration, though, that his game has mis-fired now for three days.
“It’s weird,” declared the four-time major winner after signing off with four birdies, having finished with three on Friday. “There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but it’s mixed in with a lot of crap at the same time.”
A pulled approach at the ninth, for instance, led to a double-bogey 6 that certainly wasn’t part of the Ulsterman’s plan on “moving day”. It’s only his second outing of the season, admittedly, but McIlroy is concerned about a lack of consistency in his game.
“If there was one thing that was sort of going wrong all the time, at least you can put your finger on it and sort of have a plan to try to rectify it,” he added. “But, here, I’m missing a tee shot right one minute then an iron shot left the next.”
On the eve of the $2.65 million event, the 26-year-old had declared he’d been “disappointed” if he left tonight without the iconic coffee pot still in his hands. “It’s a tall order now,” he admitted. “But I came back from seven shots behind at Wentworth a couple of years ago, so it’s not out of the realms of possibility.”
A number of the players McIlroy has to try and overtake are strong contenders to be among his team-mates when Europe defend the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine in September. The leader, Englishman Danny Willett, looks a good bet to get into that side under his own steam, as does compatriot Andy Sullivan, who sits third. Sandwiched between the pair heading into the final round is Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello, the 2012 winner.
“I’ve played some great golf both yesterday and today,” said Willett after carding a second successive 65 for a 16-under 200 total, one ahead of Cabrera-Bello (67) and two clear of Sullivan (66). “I kept the ball under fantastic control in some cross winds out there. It could have been a couple of better but I also had a couple of hiccups and it was pleasing that I kept my head on to move forward.”
Willett finished runner-up to McIlroy in last season’s Race
to Dubai, is world No 20 and looks in the mood to claim a fourth European Tour title. “I remember watching this event as a kid, though it didn’t have this skyline behind it them,” said the 28-year-old Yorkshireman, smiling, his own career having been built up in much the same way.
Sullivan, a three-time winner last season, started with a double-bogey 7 at the tenth - his first hole - on Thursday, but has negotiated 53 holes since then without another blemish. “Things seem to be going my way since that first hole,” said the 28-year-old from Nuneaton. “In fact, I’m not sure I want to keep my ball on the fairway the way I’ve been making birdies from the trees.”
Winner of the 2011 Scottish Stroke-Play Championship at Blairgowrie, Sullivan is coached by Jamie Gough, brother of the former Rangers and Scotland captain Richard Gough. “I’ve been working with him for three years and he has been a massive influence. I used to hit it right to left but now I can hit it left to right and the other way as well.”
On a day when three-time winner Ernie Els slipped nine shots off the lead after an error-strewn 74, Scott Jamieson continued to lead the three Scots who made the cut. The 32-year-old Glaswegian came home in 34, three-under, for a 71 to sit on five-under overall, two better than Craig Lee (70) and three ahead of David Drysdale (72).