Rory McIlroy stays in contention for Dubai Desert Classic hat-trick

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Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot during day three of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 29, 2022 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Getty Images
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot during day three of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 29, 2022 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Getty Images

Rory McIlroy already has Ernie Els’s American mansion and now he wants a share of the South African’s Dubai Desert Classic record. McIlroy goes out here in the final round with a golden chance of making it two golfing greats who have lifted this esteemed title on three occasions.

“Yeah, I would love to get the hat-trick and match Ernie,” McIlroy said. “We are living in his old house in Florida and it would be nice to do something else sort of intertwined with him.”

In truth, there is much that connects these two most rhythmic of talents, not least that this event heralded the first professional win on one of the two major Tours for both (Els as a 24-year-old in 1994; McIlroy as a 19-year-old in 2009).

The pair both have four majors but should probably have collected more. Of course, McIlroy is only 32 and, all things being well, has at least a decade and a half of further opportunity. In the short term, gaining a triumph this early in the season could only bode well as he tries to halt his run of seven years without a major.

At 10 under, McIlroy is in the last group with Justin Harding, the South African pacesetter on 12 under. With respect to Harding, a two-time winner on the DP World Tour, and indeed to a stellar leaderboard also featuring a healthy English presence in Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton and Lee Westwood, McIlroy must be the favourite.

Justin Harding of South Africa plays his second shot on the par 5. 13th hole during the third round of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic on The Majlis Course at The Emirates Golf Club on January 29, 2022 in Dubai, United Arab Emirate - David Cannon/Getty Images
Justin Harding of South Africa plays his second shot on the par 5. 13th hole during the third round of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic on The Majlis Course at The Emirates Golf Club on January 29, 2022 in Dubai, United Arab Emirate - David Cannon/Getty Images

His third-round 69 included an eagle, four birdies and three bogeys and McIlroy called it “a fair representation of my day”. Yet similar to Friday’s 66, that could easily have been a 63, he left a few out there.

Like everyone, he struggled on the Majlis Course’s new greens. “They are very firm and late in the day, it gets harder to hole putts just because they are a little crusty,” McIlroy said. “They got progressively faster as the round went on, so I started to putt a little more defensively on the back nine. All that sort of led to a pretty challenging day. But I’m in a good position and it’s great to give myself another chance of getting my third title here. I had a great chance in 2018 but let it slip through my fingers when Haotong [Li] won.”

On that occasion, McIlroy was two ahead with eight to play before a few late bogeys allowed the Chinese youngster to steal in for an unlikely win.

That experience will surely serve as a reminder of how quickly it can go wrong on a Sunday, even at one of his most cherished layouts. “I’ve played in a lot of final groups here, so it’s nothing new to me at this point but there’s a great atmosphere out there and I’m excited for it,” McIlroy said.

The huge crowds here are excited to have him and would love to see their hero produce more eagles like Saturday's on the 10th. “I had about 225 yards and pitched it right where I wanted to and it was a great leave, and there could have been another eagle on the 13th where I hit a great five-iron into 12 feet with a similar sort of shot. And then I hit a great four-iron into the last. They are three shots that really give me encouragement going into tomorrow,” he said.

Joining him and world No 122 Harding will be Fleetwood, whose own 69 took him to nine under and into a share of third with yet another South African in Erik van Rooyen (71). At the very least, Fleetwood has given himself a tantalising look at his first piece of silverware in more than two years while Hatton (73) is on eight under, the same mark as Casey (70), the defending champion putting up a rousing defence.

On the last, Casey watched through his fingertips as his friend and compatriot Westwood (71) hit a wedge from the rough into the water and took a triple-bogey eight to fall from 10 under to seven under.

“We’ve all been there and, yes, it was painful to watch, but I would usually expect Lee to get over that in about an hour,” Casey said.

“However, he’s doing ‘dry January’ this year.”

Day two: 'It really knocked me back': Lee Westwood battles Covid after-effects as he moves into Dubai contention

'It really knocked me back': Lee Westwood battles Covid after-effects as he moves into Dubai contention - DAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGES
'It really knocked me back': Lee Westwood battles Covid after-effects as he moves into Dubai contention - DAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGES

Lee Westwood is not just battling the likes of Rory McIlroy on this star-studded Desert Classic leaderboard, but also the after-effects of Covid-19. And as an asthmatic 48-year-old that is not a handicap that should be taken lightly.

The Englishman looked exhausted after he walked off the Majlis Course here, wiping his brow and letting out a deep sigh. A second successive 69 had taken him to six-under and put him in contention going into the weekend on what is remarkable his 26th appearance in this $8m event. But he was clearly feeling it.

“I’m six rounds into my year and happy after last week [in Abu Dhabi where he finished 20th] and now here because I felt I was starting off this year a bit behind the eight-ball,” he said. “I had Covid in December which led to a chest infection and because I suffer from asthma it really has knocked me back. I was two weeks on the couch and that isn't like me. I still feel tired now, very much so.

“Last week was the first time I've walked 18 holes since playing at the Houston Open, which was more than two months ago. It's draining, yeah. I don't feel like I can get as much air into my lungs at the moment. I’m surprised how bad I was over Christmas and that it has run over to now. Let’s just say I’m glad I was vaccinated.”

Westwood is in a tie for 10th in a group also containing countrymen Tommy Fleetwood (71) and Paul Casey (68), the defending champion. Having been second three times since first teeing it up as a 22-year-old in 1995 - two years before Collin Morikawa, the world No 2 who is currently in a tie for 25th, was born - this is a title Westwood dearly craves.

“This is on my list as one of the ones that got away and I’d like to put that right,” he said. “It’s been good solid stuff, but somebody asked me if I’d take another two 69s and I wouldn't. Because I’m not sure that would be enough and I’m only here to win.”

The world No 41 is five behind Justin Harding (68), the South African who holds a two-shot advantage over another Englishman in Tyrrell Hatton (66). Then comes Fabrizio Zanotti and Erik Van Rooyen on eight-under in a tie for third, with McIlroy in the bunch on seven-under.

McIlroy’s 66 was a fine tee-to-green exhibition. “Could have been way lower,” he said. “I certainly hit the ball well enough for it to be lower. I missed a few opportunities, but with the way these new greens are, they get a bit chewed up in the afternoons and start to wiggle a little bit. But they are pretty quick as well and you don't want to be giving them too much of a run at the hole.

“I hit the ball as good as I've done in a long time and I left quite a few out there, but 66 is a good score and sets me up for a nice weekend. This was the first event I ever won as a pro [as a 19-year-old in 2009] and I’d love to make it a hat-trick of Dubai Desert Classics.”

Day one: Tommy Fleetwood finds groove and opens up on 2021's driving problems

Tommy Fleetwood finds groove in Dubai and opens up on 2021's driving problems - Getty Images
Tommy Fleetwood finds groove in Dubai and opens up on 2021's driving problems - Getty Images

Never mind “driving for show”, Tommy Fleetwood happens to be driving to stay among the world’s elite. During his descent down the rankings in 2021, there were, he reveals, times when he was on tee-boxes and “always on the edge of losing my ball somewhere”.

Fortunately for his many admirers, the Englishman is starting to feel in control again.

His first-round 67 here in the opening round of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic was a model in hitting the fairway and making the hay from the cut stuff. This wonderful iron player admits, however, that these are small steps, as he seeks to reclimb the mountain.

“I'm sacrificing a bit of speed and distance just to have a shot that's going to put me in play more often than not,” he said. “As soon as I can start doing that, get the percentage up in hitting the fairway or even if the first cut, I can start scoring and go from there. At the moment, it's just that one shot that's going to put you in play - and keep you in it.”

Fleetwood has never been anything less than humble, but it is a mark of this maddening game that his ambitions, in a playing sense anyway, must for the moment be so prosaic and so pragmatic. Perfection can go out of the window for the time being as he tries to stop the rot.

At world No 43 he is lower in the rankings than he has been in five years and with only one strokeplay top-five in the last 20 months, he has lost his playing privileges on the PGA Tour, an almost inconceivable scenario when he was the top-ranked Englishman at world No 9 in 2018, the year he set a record for a Ryder Cup rookie when winning his first four matches at Le Golf National.

Now, he has four other compatriots above him and the memory of the Ryder Cup shellacking four months ago, when he mustered a single point for the forlorn Europe cause, seems all too fresh in the memory.

Tommy Fleetwood of England shakes hands with Robert MacIntyre of Scotland - Getty Images
Tommy Fleetwood of England shakes hands with Robert MacIntyre of Scotland - Getty Images

The challenge, therefore, seems urgent but Fleetwood, 31, is determined not to panic. His career has previously witnessed a proper slump in 2016, when, in just 13 months, he fell from top 50 in the rankings to 188th. That chastening experience told him that while accountability is important, it is vital to retain some self-love among all the internal rollockings.

"It's a fine balance because without being too hard on yourself and without being overly critical, you don't get anywhere near as far as what you want in life," Fleetwood said. "But at the same time you can take it too far and be detrimental to yourself, so you're always on a knife edge….

“But yeah, it's coming. I’m a lot more positive about my game. Whatever the result is and whatever I turn up with tomorrow, if I can just stay patient enough without forcing things, I feel I can keep getting better."

As he charged through his first nine here at the Majlis Course in four under - that even included a yanked five-footer for birdie on the ninth - it all seemed so reminiscent of his European Tour order of merit victory just up the road at the Jumeirah Golf Estates in 2017.

But then he missed the fairway on the par-five 13th on his way to a bogey, before a fine wedge from 150-yards to six-feet on the 14th instantly claimed back his only dropped shot of the day.

There were cool up-and-downs on the 15th and 16th and the 18th saw him finally capitalise on a par-five with a two-putt birdie from 18 feet after negotiating the lake guarding the green from 250 yards with a fine second. “Hopefully I can keep playing like I did on the front nine today,” Fleetwood said, as he eyes a first title in more than two years. “That would be very, very nice.”

On five-under, Fleetwood is two behind Danish pacesetter Joaquim B Hansen, with South African Justin Harding on six-under after 17 holes when play was suspended for light. Sergio Garcia is alongside Fleetwood and world No 2 Collin Morikawa is one further back on four -under. Rory McIlroy shot a one-under 71.