He almost holed his approach shots to both the 17th and 18th at Abu Dhabi Golf Club for a birdie-eagle sign off, carding a 70 to reach the halfway stage in joint-second at eight-under, two behind leader Andy Sullivan.
“I needed it,” said McIlroy of his grandstand finish, which came after play had been delayed for the second day in a row due to morning mist in the United Arab Emirates.
“I couldn’t hole anything from outside two feet, so I decided to hit a couple within two feet.
“It glossed over a pretty average round, but I said to (caddie) JP (Fitzgerald) on the 17th tee, ‘let’s finish 3-3’ and it was nice to able to do that, even though I did not quite expect it.”
Sixty yards past playing partners Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler from the tee at the 17th, McIlroy was left with just a wedge for his approach at the 482-yard par-4 and came close to seeing that drop into the hole.
McIlroy had taken driver at the last, a 562-yard par-5, in the opening round, but was talked into hitting 3-wood this time by Fitzgerald due to it playing downwind and water, therefore, coming into play.
That left him with 5-wood from 268 yards and, considering the ball was slightly below his feet, the world No 3 produced an early contender for “Shot of the Year” with his approach. It pitched around ten feet short of the hole and ran past the edge of the cup to again leave him with almost a tap-in.
“I’ve never had an albatross - or a double eagle for our American friends,” he said, smiling. “My dad’s had a couple, so it would have been nice if that one had gone in, but I’m happy to finish with an eagle.
“I’ve got myself up the leaderboard to stay within touching distance of the leaders and that is pleasing after yesterday being such a frustrating day due to missed chances.”
Earlier, play had been delayed by two hours and 50 minutes due to thick mist, which had already seen a similar chunk of action lost on Friday morning.
“Delays mean early starts and long days,” said McIlroy. “I was having a coffee this morning with Thomas Bjorn, who can moan a little bit. But I’m not leaving the UAE for another three weeks (he defends the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title in a fortnight’s time), so I’ll wait here as long as it takes.”
World No 1 Spieth headed into the third round five shots behind McIlroy after losing ground following a 73. The American parred the last eight holes, shouting out in frustration after pulling his approach from the middle of the fairway at the last, which he then followed by playing an uncharacteristic clumsy chip that raced 15 feet past the hole.
Helped by getting down in two putts from long range at the 18th, Scottish Open champion Fowler birdied two of the last three holes for a 68 to sit in a tie for 11th on six-under-par.
McIlroy was joined on eight-under by Bryson DeChambeau after the 22-year-old American amateur followed up the 64 that led after the opening round with a 73.
Seven players stood on seven-under, including former winner Robert Rock (67), 2015 BMW PGA champion Ben An (68) and Henrik Stenson, who salvaged a 72 by picking up three birdies in the last four holes.
Richie Ramsay’s 66, which he’d carded on Friday, was the best score in the second round and saw him into the third circuit alongside three-time winner Martin Kaymer in joint-15th on five-under.
The Aberdonian was among four Scots to survive the cut, the others being David Drysdale, who carded a second 71 in the company of DeChambeau, to sit in a share of 44th on two-under, and Russell Knox and Scott Jamieson, both one-under and tied for 56th.
Despite an eagle at the last, Marc Warren missed out by a shot and was joined in making an early exit by Craig Lee, Paul Lawrie and Stephen Gallacher.