ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Rory McIlroy envisioned this being a statement week, he just didn’t figure he’d have so much company on his way to a 2016 kick off.
After all, the last time McIlroy teed off on a Sunday in this desert it was essentially a two-man race between himself and Andy Sullivan at the DP World Tour Championship, in November up the road in Dubai.
For Sunday’s sequel, however, McIlroy will set out early tied with four others for the lead, including Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter and Branden Grace.
All total, 16 players are within three strokes of the lead, including Jordan Spieth and esoteric American amateur Bryson DeChambeau.
“This one is a bit more bunched. I think there will be a few more in contention,” said McIlroy, who beat Sullivan in November at the DP World Tour Championship by a stroke.
The stars have aligned for a possible showdown between McIlroy and Spieth, although it’s not likely they will be paired together with the Northern Irishman needing to finish his third round and the world No. 1 already in the clubhouse at 7 under.
More likely is a challenge by committee, with a host of proven players within striking distance.
Among that group would be Grace, who emerged as a major player with top-5 finishes at the U.S. Open (T-4) and PGA Championship (third) last year and fresh off four consecutive top-10 finishes, including a third-place showing last November at the European Tour finale.
Poulter should also be considered a legitimate contender among the group of would-be winners, having emerged from last week’s EurAsia Cup in something close to his signature Ryder Cup form.
“It’s match play, whenever you go head-to-head you get the juices going, and that's obviously nice as the first tournament of the year,” Poulter said of last week’s matches. “I think it's done me some good, and I think I'm looking forward to what the challenge is for the next 20, 26 holes.”
The biggest challenge for McIlroy may be avoiding the sight of any leaderboards during what will be a marathon Sunday, particularly with the likes of Spieth looming.
Spieth rebounded after finishing his second round early Saturday, a 1-over 73 that was his first over-par card in his last 21 worldwide rounds, with a flawless third round.
Starting Round 3 at the 10th hole, he birdied two of his first three holes and added two more birdies before racing into the clubhouse before darkness halted play with a 4-under 68.
“I started out this tournament not driving the ball particularly well the first 12, 13 holes and since then my driver has been on,” said Spieth, who won his first start of the year two weeks ago at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions by eight strokes.
“I can make excuses all I want; I still haven't made many putts and there's no excuses for that. It can all come together tomorrow. It's happened many times in random rounds. Why not the fourth round here?”
McIlroy can still change the narrative of a jam-packed leaderboard. He was 2 under for the day when play was halted by darkness through nine holes.
When he returned to the golf course early Saturday to complete his fog-delayed second round he was four strokes out of the lead, but closed his morning with a birdie-eagle finish at Nos. 17 and 18 to narrow that gap.
Like Spieth and Fowler, McIlroy – who is making his 2016 debut this week – has gotten sharper with each passing round and his driving is reminiscent of when he won majors by eight strokes.
“Twenty-seven holes left to play and hopefully I can play a good back nine tomorrow morning and set myself up for an exciting last 18 [holes],” McIlroy said.
In short, McIlroy is hoping history repeats itself Sunday morning in the United Arab Emirates, and Sunday afternoon.