Jordan Speith plays six-ball to beat the clock

A GUDDLE of a day in the desert literally ended in sixes and sevens. A second fog delay in two days meant the third round of the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship has yet to be completed, and in the gathering gloom, Andy Sullivan took a 7 at the ninth to go from leading by two shots to one behind a five-strong group that includes Rory McIlroy.

At 6:15pm local time, 15 minutes after the klaxon had sounded, Jordan Spieth completed his round as part of a six-ball. “I’ve not played a six-ball before, that was a first,” said Spieth, smiling, after he and his playing partners, Soren Kjeldsen and Pablo Larrazabal, ended up on the ninth green at Abu Dhabi Golf Club along with the trio ahead of them – Eddie Pepperell, Tyrell Hatton and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.

With players allowed to complete the hole they’re on, the world No.1 got his tee shot away in the nick of time. “My ball was still in the air when the buzzer sounded,” added the American. “I was fortunate as another ten seconds and I wouldn’t have teed off.”

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The ninth has been the story of Spieth’s first visit to the United Arab Emirates this week. Coming off the tee on Thursday, he became the virgin victim of the European Tour’s new slow-play “monitoring” system. On Friday, his drive was going to get wet until it hit a spectator on the backside. In getting the hole finished yesterday, albeit in near darkness, he earned a long lie as 60 players return to complete round three before heading out again for what promises to be a mouth-watering final circuit in the opening event on this season’s Desert Swing. “I said to one of the officials on the seventh green, ‘Would you guys mind just giving us a five-minute warning when the horn’s going to go?’ because it is blown earlier over in the States. We’ve played in much darker than this,” revealed the 22-year-old.

A bogey-free 68 for a seven-under-par total left Spieth sitting one off the clubhouse lead, held by Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee, but three back from McIlroy, Branden Grace, Ian Poulter, Rickie Fowler and Joost Luiten. With another five players on nine-under and four on eight-under, heavy traffic looks set to lie ahead of Spieth over the final 18 holes.

“Some crazy round tomorrow has got a chance,” he insisted. “My short game is there when tee-to-green play isn’t. But then when my tee-to-green play is there, I’ve just not holed any putts. If it all comes together tomorrow, who knows.”

Sullivan’s smile, which is as warm as the desert sun, was wiped off for once by a sore end to his day. Playing in the same group as McIlroy, the Nuneaton man lost his ball in a bush to the right of the ninth fairway and ended up taking a triple-bogey 7. It dropped him into a tie for sixth alongside 2012 champion Robert Rock, as well as Henrik Stenson, Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera-Bello.

McIlroy may end up as the main beneficiary of Sullivan’s late lapse if he comes out on top today, but the world No.3 said he took no comfort from watching a fellow player stopped in his tracks. “It wasn’t great to see what happened to Andy and it was a weird one as no-one saw where the ball went in and we couldn’t find it,” said McIlroy, having dug around in the bushes himself. “I was hoping he made that putt (a three-footer that would have limited the damage to a 6) just to give him a little bit of momentum going into tomorrow.”

Bidding to finally go one better in this event after four second places, McIlroy’s momentum was provided earlier in the day as the four-time major winner produced a spectacular finish to his second round. He almost holed his approach shots at the 17th and 18th for a birdie-eagle sign-off, having failed to muster a single birdie until then. His 5-wood into 18 from 268 yards, off a slightly hanging lie to boot, was an early contender for the circuit’s “Shot of the Year” ending up 18 inches from the hole. “It glossed over a pretty average round,” admitted the 27-year-old. “But I said to [caddie] JP [Fitzgerald] on the 17th tee, ‘let’s finish 3-3’ and it was nice to be able to do that, even though I did not quite expect it.”

Can McIlroy go on and match Spieth by making a winning start to 2016? “It’s a really bunched leaderboard, so it will be a bit of a sprint to the finish tomorrow, but I’m in a decent position,” he added.