Even for Rory McIlroy, winning isn’t easy. Eighteen-under-par didn’t get the job done in Abu Dhabi last weekend, when he finished joint-third behind Tommy Fleetwood. And he will almost certainly have to improve on that score to claim a record-equalling third success in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
On 19-under-par after 54 holes, the Ulsterman trails 22-year-old Chinese player Haotong Li by a shot heading into the final round at Emirates Golf Club. Li’s total is one short of the record on the Majlis Course after three circuits, set by Stephen Gallacher when he claimed the first of his back-to-back triumphs in 2013.
On the strength of his bogey-free eight-under-par 64 in the third round, both in terms of the score itself and the impressive way it was crafted, Li is in with a great shout of adding to a 2016 win in the Volvo China Open. More recently, he closed with a 63 at Royal Birkdale to finish third behind Jordan Spieth in last year’s Open Championship. “I’ve never been in this position before, so it’s going to be fun out there tomorrow,” said the leader, who is an archetypal beanpole at 6ft 1in and weighing just 11 stone but still manages to generate ball speed off the face of the club of 183mph, which is in the same league as world No 1 Dustin Johnson. “Hopefully I can do my best.”
All eyes, though, will be on McIlroy in the final round and he looks ready to pounce. On a day when he played 25 holes following a fog delay on Friday, the 28-year-old continued to show signs that 2018 could be a stellar season after his decision to shut down last year’s campaign early so that he could take a three-month break.
Admittedly, there was some sloppiness on the front nine of his third round, costing him bogeys at both the fourth and eighth, where a pulled approach was followed by a duffed chip. But it was McIlroy at his best as he eagled the 10th after two majestic blows, with three birdies in the final six holes also contributing to a pleasing day at the coalface.
“The front nine was not a true reflection of where my game is but, after making a good two-putt on nine (to save par), I had a little talk to myself and played the back nine much better,” he said. “The quality of the golf was much better, which I was happy with, and to come back in five-under is very nice.”
McIlroy’s last title triumph was 16 months ago in the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta. Last season was his first winless campaign since 2008, but, having triumphed here in both 2009, when he recorded his breakthrough victory in the paid ranks, and again in 2015, he definitely looks the man to beat.
“It’s two weeks into the season and I’ve got my second chance to win a tournament, so I can’t complain,” he added. “I know that if he (Li) continues to play like that, he’ll be tough to beat tomorrow, but I feel like if I play my game, I’ve got a good chance. This is a place I’ve always done well at hopefully that experience of winning a couple of times around here and being in contention quite a lot will help.”
One of the biggest challenges for McIlroy on the final day could be keeping patient. Li, after all, is laborious at times in comparison to him when it comes to pulling the trigger. “Not naming names, but I struggled the first couple of rounds with the pace of play as well, but two-balls tomorrow should see us going from five hours to three hours and forty five minutes tomorrow, which will feel nice,” he said.
“I think it’s always hard for the quicker player because he always has to adapt to what the others are doing. I also think sometimes it’s tough for me because I’m usually the longest in the group. I’m up at my ball and then there’s two guys still to hit, so it feels like I’m waiting an age sometimes. But I’ve got used to it. I’ve been on Tour ten years and had my fair share of slow play.”
In addition to McIlroy, Li has Alexander Levy chasing him after the Frenchman, helped by a hole-in-one at the fourth moved into contention on 17-under, with South African Haydn Porteous on the same total after a matching 65. Englishman Andy Sullivan, second to Danny Willett two years ago, is a shot further back after a 64, the same score posted by Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello to sit in a group on 14-under that also includes double Dunhill Links champion Tyrrell Hatton.
After getting to 12-under, Scott Jamieson finished bogey-double bogey to sit alongside Richie Ramsay, with two-time winner Stephen Gallacher two shots behind his compatriots on six-under.
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