Rory McIlroy delivered an exhibition of short iron play and Ryan Fox showed why he was given the Seve Ballesteros Award in a crucial third round at the Dubai Desert Classic this morning.
McIlroy shot seven-under 65 in his third round to build a three-stroke lead in Dubai while Fox shot a six-under 66 featuring five birdies and an eagle.
Fox's only blemish was a bogey on the par four 8th hole but his impressive third round - only bettered by McIlroy - put him in an 11-man group tied for 11th, five shots adrift of the leader.
The top-ranked McIlroy made eight birdies at 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 8 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 the American attempted to cut the corner on a dog-leg right. Reed 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.”
Reed and a rules official used binoculars to identify the player's ball in the tree. That allowed Reed to take a penalty drop near the base of the tree instead of having to return to the tee.
“I would have gone back to the tee if I wasn’t 100%," Reed told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph. “I got lucky that we were able to look through the binoculars and you have to make sure it’s your ball, and how I mark my golf balls is I always put an arrow on the end of my line.
“And you could definitely see and identify the line with the arrow on the end, and the rules official, luckily, was there to reconfirm and check it to make sure it was mine as well.”
The 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 tomorrow after bad weather cut short play on the opening two days.