Rory McIlroy delivered an exhibition of short iron play to shoot 7-under 65 in his third round and build a three-stroke lead at the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday.
The top-ranked McIlroy made eight birdies at the Emirates Golf Club — four in a row from No. 1, three straight from No. 13, and another at No. 17 — and none of the birdie putts were from more than 7 feet.
“I drove the ball better today, which put me in better positions to attack and make birdies,” said the Northern Irishman, making his first start of 2023. “It’s nearly there, not quite there, but I’m making the most of the good shots that I’m hitting and putting well. I’m just playing really efficient golf right now.”
McIlroy did, though, give the chasers some hope by making bogey at the par-5 No. 18, for his only dropped shot of the round, after hitting a fairway wood from around 250 yards into the water in front of the green. After missing a par putt from eight feet, McIlroy had a look of disappointment across his face as he walked off the green, despite holding a commanding lead.
The four-time major champion made the same mistake on the 18th hole in his final round in last year’s tournament to finish a shot behind the leaders, when a birdie would have won him the title.
“I love this golf course, this tournament. I have won here a couple of times ... but I don’t think I’ve won on my first start (of a year),” he said. “I’ve given myself an opportunity to try to do something I’ve never done before.”
McIlroy was on 15 under overall, with English players Callum Shinkwin (67) and No. 484-ranked Dan Bradbury (68) tied for second place.
As the players on the leaderboard went down the stretch, there looked to be a strong chance of McIlroy and Patrick Reed being together in the last group in Monday’s final round. That would have been must-watch viewing after they made headlines with a pre-tournament spat.
Reed, however, made bogey at the drivable par-4 17th when his tee shot got stuck up a palm tree after attempting to cut the corner on a dog-leg right. The American wound up shooting 69 and was in a seven-man group tied for fourth place on 11 under, four shots behind McIlroy.
“You know what, I hit that tee shot, I didn’t even see those palms,” Reed said. “I felt like it was on a good line, just left of the green and I guess I just need to be a little more right or a little higher.
“It’s an unfortunate break, but at the same time, I hit the line solid. I hit it right down the line I was looking. That’s all you’re going to ask for. You’re going to get bad breaks once in a while. You just have to bounce back from them.”
That group on 11 under included France’s Victor Perez (66), the winner last week at the equally prestigious Abu Dhabi Championship.
Spanish player Adri Arnaus briefly held the lead on 13 under after eight holes of his round, but he fell away after bogeying No. 9 and making double-bogey at the par-5 13th. Arnaus was also one of those on 11 under.
The tournament is finishing on Monday after bad weather cut short play on the opening two days.