A double-bogey to close on Friday cost Rory McIlroy the midway lead at the DP World Tour Championship.
The two-time champion, looking to become the first player to win the European Tour’s season-ending event for a third time, seemed set to keep hold of top spot for the second successive night when he stepped on to the par-five 18th on the Earth Course with a one-shot advantage.
However, McIlroy found the bunker off the tee, then the creek with his approach and failed to get up and down for at least a share of the lead going into Saturday. The four-time major champion holed out for a seven to card a two-under 70. Subsequently, he sits on nine-under par alongside Alexander Bjork of Sweden, one shot back.
Ireland’s Shane Lowry shares a three-way lead on 10-under with American John Catlin and England’s Sam Horsfield. Current Race to Dubai frontrunner Collin Morikawa, meanwhile, is in a tie for sixth on eight-under together with two-time major champion Martin Kaymer.
When put to McIlroy immediately afterwards that some were surprised he opted for his driver off the tee on the 18th, given the narrow landing area, the world No 8 said: “I hit a good drive down there yesterday. It's a comfortable tee shot for me. I hit that tee shot really well, I actually didn't expect it to go as far as it did and get up into the face of the bunker.
“Even that was fine. And then, the third shot, I hit a really good shot. That part of the fairway where the ball was, was quite sort of thatchy and [it] came up spinny into the wind. I hit a good golf shot and felt like I didn't deserve to be in the water. And it was a tricky up-and-down from there."
"It wasn't the greatest way to finish. I was just sort of holding it together most of the day. I was a little scrappier than yesterday, but felt like I was doing OK. It would have been nice to finish off a bit better but I'm still right in the golf tournament.”
McIlroy, who won last month on his most recent competitive outing, opened the tournament on Thursday with a superb 65 that included four birdies and an eagle in his first eight holes. The former world No 1, winner at Jumeirah Golf Estates in 2012 and 2015, goes out in his third round with reigning Open champion Morikawa.
“That will be good,” McIlroy said. “Look, I'm playing nicely. I started well again today and hit a lot of good shots on the front nine. It was sort of a little scrappy around the middle but I was able to hang in there with my short game.
“So, the good stuff is in there. I still feel like I played well and I feel like 70 is sort of the worst I could have shot today, especially with the finish. Hopefully that's the bad one out of the way.”
Like McIlroy, Lowry has a pretty decent track record at the event. The 2019 Open champion, who won in Abu Dhabi that year too, was fifth in 2014 and then tied-second three years later. On Friday, Lowry fired a blemish-free 65, highlighted by a chip-in for an eagle on the 14th.
Having said this week that winning the season finale would represent the ticking of an item off his bucket list, the Irishman was keen not to let that change his mindset going into the final two rounds.
“Just keep doing what I'm doing,” Lowry said. “For me personally, it's two more days left and the end of a long year and a half, I suppose, long couple years. I'm looking forward to giving everything and leaving it on the course this weekend. And hopefully I'm there near the top of the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon."
With the Race to Dubai fast reaching its conclusion, Morikawa remains very much in pole position. The American, one of six who could secure the year-long crown this week, is the highest placed of the contenders after a second successive 68. The two-time major champion is bidding to become the first player from the US to capture the European Tour Order of Merit.
Compatriot Billy Horschel, arriving in Dubai second in the Race standings, is eight shots worse off in a tie for 43rd. Matt Fitzpatrick and Paul Casey are the nearest to Morikawa of those still in the hunt. The English duo lay three shots back on five-under, however, either would need to win this week to take the Race to Dubai.
Asked if he checks out his Race rivals’ scores after each round, Morikawa said: “I'm aware. But I've got to focus on the weekend. I want to win this tournament.
“That's all I care about, winning this tournament and everything else will kind of settle itself. That's my focus. We've played a decent two days and we've got two more rounds to go.”