Rory McIlroy reignites Dubai Desert Classic title defence with stunning 63 at the Majlis

Holder flies up the field after starting Saturday 10 shots and 32 places behind the leader

Rory McIlroy celebrates after an eagle putt on the 18th during round three of the Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on Saturday, January 20, 2024. Getty Images
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When Rory McIlroy went off in the 10.16am two-ball at Emirates Golf Club on Saturday, there were 32 players between him and the leader, Cameron Young.

So far back was the Northern Irishman, the gallery attending the first hole scarcely numbered more than a handful – way down on the usual Saturday scrum to follow McIlroy at the Dubai Desert Classic. For once, father Gerry did not need to jostle to see his boy.

It took all of two shots for word to get out. The world No 2 nestled his approach from the rough on the left-hand side of the first fairway right up beside the hole. Confirmed: McIlroy was on a burner. Stop what you were doing, and get there to see it. Because it is just about the most compelling sight in golf.

The players which followed had to avoid the singes McIlroy left on the course as he carded a nine-under par 63.

It culminated in a glorious putt from 15 yards, from off the back fringe, for an eagle at the last that brought the biggest roar of the day from the corporate balconies surrounding.

At precisely the same moment, Young was carding an ugly double-bogey five at the seventh. It meant – remarkably, given where he started the day – McIlroy walked off the course with a share of the lead, on 12-under-par.

By the time he had completed his media duties, he had the outright lead on his own. Young had bogeyed the eighth, too.

The defending champion might yet be overtaken between now and the close of round three. But he pointed out he is just happy to be back contending after starting the day 10-off the lead.

“I was walking up with the putter in my hand, and as I got closer to the ball, I saw that there was a lot of fringe to go through,” McIlroy said of his eagle putt at the last.

“I said to Harry [Diamond, his caddie], I want to chip it but the lie wasn't great. I could just see the club bouncing. I [decided to] ride my luck with the putter, and it came out perfectly.

“As soon as it got on the green, it actually wasn't as fast as I thought it was going to be once it got on the green. It was tracking perfectly, and obviously it is a huge bonus for something like that to go in.

“For the rest of the day, I played some very, very good golf. Definitely better than I played the last couple of days and it is nice to get myself right back in the tournament.”

McIlroy’s excellence was evidenced by the fact he went out in 30. The front nine at the Majlis is accepted as being the tougher to score on, but he finished it with birdies at seven, eight and nine.

It means he will now definitely be in with a realistic shot at retaining the Dallah trophy on Sunday, and become the first four-time winner of the Classic.

“It would be amazing,” he said. “Being the first player to get my name on it four times would be awesome.

“I've had so much success in Dubai, whether it be at this tournament or over at Jumeirah Golf Estates [at the DP World Tour Championship] and Race to Dubai.

“It's been a really, really good place to me. I love coming back here. I really enjoy my time here. It would be amazing if I was able to get another win.”

Updated: January 20, 2024, 11:26 AM