Rory McIlroy expects tough fight with Li Haotong for Dubai Desert Classic title

Former world No 1 displays good form on a long Day 3, but come Day 4 he says he will need to play like Chinese rival has

epa06478588 Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot  during the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic 2018 golf tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 27 January 2018.  EPA/MAHMOUD KHALED

Rory McIlroy’s analysis of his third-round 68 at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic was succinct.

“Hopefully that's the bad one out of the way,” the Northern Irishman said.

Because, in the rarefied climes that the four-time major winner operates, a 4-under-par 68 officially qualifies as a “bad one”.

What a shocker. Just the four birdies on the card. And not forgetting that eagle, of course, when he munched through the 549-yard par-5 10th, using just a driver, 7-iron and putter.

McIlroy even floated the idea of getting back out on the range straight after coming in, to iron out some kinks in his game. Given he is just one shot back from the leader, Li Haotong, ahead of Sunday’s final round, his self-flagellation may seem a little unfair.

Especially given that McIlroy is still just seven rounds into his comeback after more than three months on the sidelines recuperating from injury.

It is a comment, though, on both his own exacting personal standards, as well as scoring conditions at the Majlis that have been benign in the extreme. Scoring chances are everywhere, so the fact he was 1-over for his third round when he reached the turn might have felt like an opportunity missed.

The halfway cut actually came late on Saturday morning, because of the 2hr 50mins of lost play caused by fog a day earlier. When it arrived, the chop was made at an eye-watering 5-under par, two shots lower than the previous Classic record.

It was beyond the pale for some of those who had missed out.

“We must tighten the fairways, grow the rough and firm the greens to make it tougher,” Pablo Larrazabal, whose tournament ended at 1-under par, tweeted. “Nowadays, [it is] all about hitting it hard, and a putting contest. A 5-under cut is crazy.”

Paul Waring missed the cut by three, even though he was 2-under for his two rounds. “Whilst not the most difficult we play it’s still 7,300 yards!” Waring wrote on social media.

McIlroy, who played the seven holes he required to finish his second round on Saturday morning in a majestic 5-under par, held the lead at 15-under at that point. He seemed all set to race away from the field.

But then his form cooled, just as Li’s caught fire. By the time the sun was setting behind Dubai Marina, the Chinese contender had reached 20-under, following a flawless 64 in Round 3.

His playing partner in the last match out was impressed. “I know that if he continues to play like that, he'll be tough to beat,” McIlroy said.


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"But I feel like if I play my game, I've got a good chance. I feel like if I play my game I should be able to shoot something a bit lower tomorrow, and I feel like I'll need something a bit lower to win.
"Li played really well out there, and if he continues to play like that, I'm going to have to shoot something similar to what he shot today."

McIlroy’s form over the past two weeks has made a joke of the notion that his stint away might have left him rusty on his return to competitive golf.

After three rounds at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last week, he was in a position to strike, only to fall short at the last, having to settled for yet another third-place finish in the capital.

Perhaps tellingly, his 2-under 70 to finish in Abu Dhabi last week was the highest of the four rounds he played at the National Course. Maybe he was betraying signs of tiredness back then.

Playing 25 holes on Saturday might have tested him, but McIlroy was bullish about his fitness by the close of the day.

“I was nine-under for those [25] holes I played today, which is pretty good,” he said. “I’m physically fine, and feel good. I could go out and play another 18.”