ON THE eve of the country going to the polls for a second time in five months, most votes for a winner in the £4.6 million Turkish Airlines Open were being cast for Rory McIlroy.
It followed the world No 3 overcoming a loss of temper in the third round in sun-kissed Belek to ignite his title challenge in the opening event of the European Tour’s lucrative Final Series.
Hurling his putter off the tenth green in frustration following a second three-putt of the day, McIlroy managed to channel that anger positively by picking up four shots in the next four holes.
Helped by that burst, which included an eagle from four feet at the par-5 13th, the 26-year-old went on to sign for a third straight 67 and, sitting a shot off the lead on 15-under, is ominously placed heading into the closing circuit at Montgomerie Maxx Royal, where he is bidding to record a first title triumph since May.
“It was good to turn frustration into motivation,” admitted McIlroy after nestling himself in behind South African Jaco Van Zyl and, perhaps more significantly, Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, who is chasing a second win in this event in three years.
Admitting he’d felt “lethargic” as a first bogey of the week went down on the card at the third, McIlroy, the Race to Dubai leader, got the spark he needed at the 564-yard 13th by hitting a 4-iron from 229 yards to four feet. “I couldn’t see the pin and had to use one of the floodlight pylons as my target,” he said of that majestic blow. “To make eagle there then follow it with a birdie at the next (from 25 feet) turned my day around.”
In doing so, the four-times major champion has given himself an excellent chance of claiming the victory he is craving in the final weeks of the season, having seen it disrupted at the worst possible time as an injury sustained playing football with some friends ruled him out of three events, including the Scottish Open and a title defence in the Open Championship.
“I will go out with the mindset tomorrow that I need to beat 67 to have a chance,” said McIlroy, who came close to holing a 50-foot eagle putt at the last but was happy enough with a straightforward birdie there after finding trouble off the tee the previous two days and making himself sweat for a brace of pars.
McIlroy’s sheer presence will make it testing for Van Zyl, in particular, as the 36-year-old from Johannesburg bids to add a first European Tour title to 13 he’s claimed on the Sunshine Tour in his homeland, but Dubuisson, on the other hand, might not be so easily fazed.
On a course that he “feels great on”, the 25-year-old, who took to the Ryder Cup like a duck to water at Gleneagles last September, has found the touch on the greens that had deserted him this season, thus explaining the fact he’s managed just two top-10 finishes.
“My long game has been really good since the beginning of the year, but my short game has been really bad,” he said after signing for a 67. “I changed my putter one-and-a-half months ago and this week my putting has been very good.”
Despite taking six at the last after pulling his approach and having to take a penalty drop, Kiradech Aphibarnrat is alongside McIlroy in joint-third, the Thai taking route 66 in the third round as he bids to complete a notable double on a journey from Aberdeen, where he won the Saltire Energy Paul Lawrie Match Play in August, to Antalya.
On the home front, Stephen Gallacher recovered from a triple-bogey eight at the fourth to card a 70, thereby remaining as leading Scot in joint-23rd on seven-under. “That’s the best I’ve played in the three days,” said the Lothians man, who is hoping to celebrate his 41st birthday today with a “low one” as he bids to climb from 60th spot in the Race to Dubai.
A shot behind his compatriot, a flawless 69 for David Drysdale lifted him to joint-27th, while Marc Warren and Richie Ramsay are tied for 69th after a 71 and 74 respectively.