Rory McIlroy steps up bid for record fourth Hero Dubai Desert Classic win

After being ten behind at halfway, defending champion is now lurking ominously in ‘Middle East Major’
Cameron Young plays a bunker shot on the 18th hole at Emirates Golf Club. Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images.Cameron Young plays a bunker shot on the 18th hole at Emirates Golf Club. Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images.
Cameron Young plays a bunker shot on the 18th hole at Emirates Golf Club. Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images.

Never rule Rory McIlroy out when he sets foot on the Majlis Course at Emirates Golf Club. Not even when he found himself ten shots off the lead at the halfway stage in the 35th edition of Hero Dubai Desert Classic. After a blistering third-round 63, which matched his best-ever effort in the shadows of the stunning skyscrapers at one of the DP World Tour’s most-iconic venues, the Northern Irishman is now chasing a record fourth win in the event known as the ‘Middle East Major’.

Cameron Young, who is bidding to join Fred Couples, Mark O’Meara, Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau as Americans to lift the Dallah Trophy, holds a two-shot cushion over McIlroy heading into the final round of the $9 million Rolex Series event after the halfway leader, having recovered from spilling three shots in two holes on the front nine in the penultimate circuit, remained in pole position.

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Pole Adrian Meronk, who picked up the Seve Ballesteros Award earlier in the week in the Middle East after being voted as the 2023 DP World Tour’s Players’ Player of the Year, is also to the fore, sitting in a share of second spot but, after his spectacular surge up the leaderboard, McIlroy is definitely the man to beat over the closing 18 holes on Sunday. If successful, he’ll join Stephen Gallaher as the only player to land the prize back-to-back and also nudge ahead of fellow three-time winner Ernie Els in terms of an overall title tally.

Rory McIlroy celebrates after holing an eagle putt on the 18th green during round three of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.Rory McIlroy celebrates after holing an eagle putt on the 18th green during round three of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.
Rory McIlroy celebrates after holing an eagle putt on the 18th green during round three of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.

“Yeah, it would be nice,” said the 34-year-old of having an opportunity of achieving that feat. “I’ve always loved coming here and starting my year in Dubai. I’ve played well here. Of all the courses I’ve played in my professional career, this is the one I probably know the best. I first played here in 2006 as an amateur and I’ve been coming back here for 18 years. Yeah, it would be amazing to get another win here and it would be a great year to start the year and try and kick on from.”

In an effort that matched his opening score in 2014, McIlroy birdied the first third, third, seventh, eighth and ninth to be out in 30. He then birdied the tenth and 13th, both par 5s, before rounding off his day’s work in style by rolling in a 45-footer for an eagle-3 at the last. His flatstick had been a bit cold in the opening two rounds but, helped by putting guru Brad Faxon spotting something from the TV coverage, he described his work on the greens as a “little bit better today”.

Even allowing for his record at this venue - he’s on course for an 11th successive top-ten finish - it seemed that McIlroy might have left himself with too much of a mountain to climb on this occasion, but apparently not. “I think because the way the course is playing, I felt to myself that if I could shoot two 67s over the weekend that I would at least have a pretty good chance to contend,” he admitted. “I’ve nearly made those ten shots up in one day, so I’m in a much better position than I thought I would be. I played great golf, gave myself a ton of chances at the start of the round and I then scrambled well through parts of it and obviously that was a massive bonus at the last with the eagle. Yeah, I sort of expected that even if I played well today, I’d be still four or five behind going into tomorrow, but it’s a bit closer than that.”

As his closing eagle coincided with Young running up a double-bogey 5 at the seventh then dropping a shot at the next as well, McIlroy actually led at one point and would have been two in front if the American hadn’t holed a gutsy par putt at the ninth. Birdies at the 11th, 14th and 17th coming home gave Young a 71 but, with all due respect, he’s a novice compared to McIlroy when it comes to getting the job done in the Middle East.

“I think it’s a combination of the golf course and also the way the golf course is set up,” replied McIlroy to being asked if this as one of the few places around the world where he still thought he could win from ten back after 36 holes. “If you play very, very well, it enables you to go low. But, if you are just slightly off, you can feel you have played well but shoot the scores I did on the first two days - 71-70. So it’s a combination of both. But I think when you are behind, having a golf course set up like this where the misses are penal and the greens are firm, it gives guys a chance from the pack to shoot a good score.”

Five-time Race to Dubai winner McIlroy, of course, let victory slip from his grasp last Sunday in the inaugural Dubai Invitational at Dubai Creek. “It’s nice for the first two weeks to be in a final group and have a chance to win,” he declared. “That’s when you learn a lot and you learn where your game is. And I feel like I learned a little bit from that final round last week with Tommy [Fleetwood] and we’ll see if I can put those learnings into practice tomorrow.”

Scott Jamieson stormed home in four under to be leading Scot, sitting joint-10th on six under, two ahead of the aforementioned Gallacher, with Richie Ramsay a further shot back after he slipped down the leaderboard following a 76 in the penultimate group alongside Meronk. “I said to Santi [Tarrio], my playing partner today, that is unbelievable as every week the superstars, even if they just make the cut, they will still be there come Sunday afternoon and he’s obviously made his run early,” noted Jamieson of more McIlroy magic in the desert.

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