China’s Li Haotong displayed his superstar potential as he outscored Rory McIlroy by four shots in the third round to take a one-shot lead into the final day of the $3 million Dubai Desert Classic.
Starting his third round on Saturday trailing leader McIlroy by three shots, the 22-year-old Li put together a superb round of eight-under-par 64 to finish on 20-under after 54 holes.
Four-time major champion McIlroy came back to the course early in the morning to complete his second round and made five birdies in seven holes.
However, he could not get going in the third round and found himself one-over at the turn. But a much better back nine gave him a third-round 68 and three-day tally of 19-under 197.
Frenchman Alex Levy had a hole in one at the fourth en route to a 65, and he is tied third at 17 under par with South African youngster Haydn Porteous, who also shot 65. England’s Andy Sullivan made a big move with a 63 to rise to fifth place at 200.
Li made four birdies on either half of the golf course and never looked in trouble because of his impressive ball-striking. Even when he was not hitting it close, his short game saved him on a couple of occasions, including a good up-and-down on the 14th hole.
“Played really solid. Especially had a couple up-and-downs and was quite happy to shoot eight-under on this course,” said Li, who will become the first male Chinese player to crack the top 50 in the world rankings if he goes on to win.
“I just wanted to play by myself and play my game. I thought if I just stayed patient, I will play good. So just did that all day.”
McIlroy, winner of the tournament in 2009 and 2015, is looking to become the second three-time champion here after Ernie Els.
A couple of loose drives resulted in a par on the par-5 third hole and a bogey on the par-4 eighth, and there was another dropped shot on the par-3 fourth hole.
But the world number 11, who made a comeback to competitive golf after more than 100 days out last week in Abu Dhabi, fought back on the back nine.
“Hopefully that’s the bad one out of the way. I didn’t get off to too bad a start, just a couple of loose ones. Missed a short one on the fourth and made bogey on eighth,” said McIlroy.
“That wasn’t too good. But to come back with a 5-under back nine was good. It was good to knock that birdie in at the last and stay within one of Li.
“I’ll probably need to play a bit better tomorrow to win, but you know, it’s two weeks into the season and I’ve given myself a second chance to win a tournament. Looking forward to tomorrow.”
Levy aced the par-3 fourth hole and made five consecutive birdies from the ninth hole in his 65, while Porteous closed with three birdies in his last three holes.
Rory McIlroy stormed into the lead at the Dubai Desert Classic as he completed his delayed second round with a stunning 64.
The Northern Irishman birdied the 12th, 13th, 16th, 17th and 18th to surge two shots clear of Jamie Donaldson on 15 under par.
Fog had delayed play for nearly three hours on Friday which meant McIlroy, Segio Garcia and Henrik Stenson were unable to finish their second round.
Resuming play on the 12th hole early on Saturday, the 28-year-old showed his class to edge into the lead on his second competitive tournament back in nearly four months.
“That was pretty nice,” said McIlroy.
“I knew with the conditions this morning there were chances out there, obviously with the two par fives and 17.
“To take care of those and birdie a couple others, to finish five under for my last seven was a nice way to finish this morning.
“I didn’t really have a score in mind or anything. I just wanted to go out there and play a good seven holes and hopefully get myself into contention for the last couple of rounds.
“I sort of did that and maybe a little bit more and it’s nice to go into the weekend in the lead.
“Probably got a bit of a break between now and going back out there so I’ll probably get a little bit of physio treatment, make sure everything’s okay and hit some balls and practise.
“Look forward to getting out there again this afternoon.”
He almost lost his European Tour card three months ago, but Jamie Donaldson leads the way at halfway of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic after another solid day Friday.
Thursday’s sublime -10 under par 62, which saw the Welshman flirt with the course record of 61 set by Ernie Els nearly a quarter of a century ago, was followed by a more modest -3 under 69 in a weather-interrupted second day which sees him lead by one shot from China’s Li Haotong.
It’s been three-and-a-half years since the 42-year-old’s last win on the European Tour – the D+D Real Czech Masters in August 2014.
But even though he narrowly avoided being forced back to qualifying school when he finished fourth in the final event, the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, to move inside the top 101 of the Race to Dubai standings to secure his playing rights for the 2018 season, the 2014 Ryder Cup hero admits not “slogging” his guts out over the winter is paying dividends.
Whereas other players out of form would have used the winter to regain form and focus – Martin Kaymer, like Donaldson a former winner of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, is a good example – Donaldson used the winter break to reset.
“Over the winter, I took a couple months off and didn’t really hit a ball,” admitted the world number 292, who famously secured the winning point for Europe in the 2014 Ryder Cup, beating Keegan Bradley 4&3, as Europe won 16.5-11.5 at Gleneagles.
“We play so much golf all year. I’ve got two young kids, it’s time to have some family time with them for a couple of months and it was great. I’ve got a nice family life.
62-69 with 13 birdies and one eagle on the card after two rounds.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 26, 2018
“You come out for the season nice and fresh and you’re reacting more to what you’ve turned up with, as opposed to slogging yourself to death over the winter.
“Each to his own. Everyone does it differently. That’s what I like to do. And then nearer the time, start playing a little bit.”
Early morning fog meant a delay of nearly three hours at Emirates Golf Club yesterday and all of the later starters will have to complete their second rounds from 7:30am this morning – including the playing trio of Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and defending champion Sergio Garcia.
South African Branden Grace’s 65 was the lowest completed round of the day and he sat at -11 under, a shot clear of Thomas Aiken and Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Swede Alexander Bjork was also -11 under after 12 holes of his second round, with McIlroy nicely poised at -10 under with seven holes to play.
A hugely popular figure as always was veteran Spaniard Jimenez, a winner here in Dubai in 2010. The 54-yer-old, who plays mostly on the Champions Tour now, carded a -4 under par round of 68 to share fourth place with McIlory, who won here the previous year, in 2009.
That, added to his opening 66 on day one, puts him three shots off the lead. And whereas the fog would have frustrated most players, Jimenez saw it as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.
“It’s not the first time it happened, you know,” said the Malaga native, who was coolness personified in the mixed zone following his round, leisurely puffing on one of his signature cigars.
“This is my 30th season, it happened more than one: a rain delay, fog delay, thunderstorm delay. At the end of the day, you don’t think about it.
“You just go there and relax a little bit, moving around, go and have another breakfast. There’s nothing to do.”
Is there a cooler man in Dubai than #MiguelAngelJimenez?! Doubtful. This is how to conduct a post round interview. What an absolute dude. 🇪🇸. Are you having a bit of a drag of a day?! Pop along to our man @MattJones360’s feed to cheer yourself up pic.twitter.com/j1bvIpT9Ls
— Sport360° (@Sport360) January 26, 2018
Asked how he would prepare for today, he added: “Well, going to finish my cigar, going to have a small nap and I’m going to have a beautiful bottle tonight. Maybe go to the Spanish restaurant in the Souk.”
England’s Matthew Southgate made the second hole-in-one of the season with a nine iron from 154 yards on the seventh, winning himself an Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra en route to a 68 and an eight under par total.