For Rory McIlroy, it was less how he finished and more how he started Sunday at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic.
McIlroy stormed out of the gates to begin his third round at Emirates Golf Club, birdieing each of his first four holes to move into the lead. He added four more birdies in a five-hole stretch, starting with the par-5 13th hole, to build up enough of a cushion that a closing bogey at the par-5 finishing hole mattered little in terms of his position on the leaderboard.
McIlroy’s 7-under 65 moved him to 15 under, three shots clear of the field entering Monday’s rescheduled final round.
“Obviously, I got off to a great start with those four birdies in a row, then hit a little bit of a lull sort of after that,” McIlroy told reporters afterward. “Made a really good par save on 11 that sort of kept my momentum going, and then kick-started again with obviously three nice birdies in a row on 13, 14 and 15. So, I felt like the good golf came in sort of two bursts today, and then the rest of it, it was OK. I held it together. I still don't feel quite in control of my game. But today was much better than yesterday, so that was a positive.”
After carding just a single birdie in Saturday’s second round, McIlroy didn’t need to navigate more than 6 feet for any of his eight birdies. He had less than 2 feet for birdie at the par-3 17th, which he converted. The longest putt he needed to hole all round was the clutch par he mentioned, at No. 11, which came on a 15-footer.
Sunday’s lead group of Thomas Pieters, Richard Bland and Michael Thorbjornsen wasn’t as fortunate as McIlroy. The trio combined to shoot even par with 11 birdies.
Bland, at 11 under with a host of other players, namely Patrick Reed, Ian Poulter and last week’s Abu Dhabi champ Victor Perez, is the only one of the 36-hole leaders still in the top 10. He’s a shot back of Callum Shinkwin and Dan Bradbury, who will join McIlroy in Monday’s final threesome.
It's likely they’ll get the McIlroy from Sunday and not Saturday.
“First tournament back out, it shows you what you need to work on, so I went to the range last night and hit some balls and tried to straighten the driver out a little bit,” McIlroy explained. “I hit a few more fairways. I felt like I drove the ball better today. The statistics probably wouldn't say that, but I drove the ball a lot better which put me in positions to attack and make birdies.
“It's nearly there. It's not quite there, but I'm making the most of the go shots that I'm hitting and putting well. I'm playing really efficient golf right now with the chances I'm giving myself. I'm converting, and that's the reason I'm on the score that I am.”
The world No. 1, McIlroy capped last year with two wins and nothing worse than T-4 in six straight events. He’s also historically started calendar years strong, though he’s yet to win in such starts, which have mostly come in Abu Dhabi; McIlroy skipped last week’s event, as well as the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he was eligible to play.
Full-field scores from the Hero Dubai Desert Classic
Look at McIlroy’s record in lid-lifters since turning pro:
- 2008 – T-11, Abu Dhabi
- 2009 – T-5, Abu Dhabi
- 2010 – third, Abu Dhabi
- 2011 – runner-up, Abu Dhabi
- 2012 – runner-up, Abu Dhabi
- 2013 – MC, Abu Dhabi
- 2014 –T-2, Abu Dhabi
- 2015 – runner-up, Abu Dhabi
- 2016 – T-3, Abu Dhabi
- 2017 – runner-up, SA Open
- 2018 – T-3, Abu Dhabi
- 2019 – T-4, Sentry TOC
- 2020 – T-3, Farmers
- 2021 – third, Abu Dhabi
- 2022 – T-12, Abu Dhabi
“I love this golf course. I love this tournament … I've won here a couple of times,” said McIlroy, who owns Dubai Desert Classic titles in 2009 and 2015. “You know, this is my first start of the year. I don't think I've ever won in my first start of the year (as noted above, he hasn’t). I had plenty of chances at Abu Dhabi down the road over the years, and never quite got it done.
“So, tomorrow is a nice opportunity to try to do something that I've never done before.”