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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 2 March 2021

Rory McIlroy holds slender lead atop stellar leaderboard as Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship final round promises to be a classic

Four-time major winner being chased by Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood in pursuit of the Falcon Trophy

The final round of the 2021 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship will start with three players within two shots of each other at the top of the leaderboard.

One of them has three Rolex Series titles to his name. Another of them won the Falcon Trophy in the capital twice between 2017 and 2018. The third has no such credentials to his name. But, luckily, he can still play a bit.

Quite how Rory McIlroy has never won around the National Course is a mystery. The only tournament he has played more often without winning is the Masters.

He has been runner-up four times, finished in the top three seven times in eight years, and has the best stroke average – a tick under 69 – of any player at the event.

Going into Sunday at 13-under par, McIlroy holds a one-stroke advantage over Tyrrell Hatton, who will be his fourth-round playing partner, starting at 12.45pm. In the match ahead of them, two-time champion Tommy Fleetwood will be starting a shot behind Hatton, at 11-under.

Perhaps the only way the final day could be any more appetising would be if Justin Thomas – the highest-ranked player to tee it up at this tournament this year – was in contention, too.

The world No 3 did not even make the cut, though, after closing his second round on Saturday morning with a double-bogey seven at the par-5 18th.

Still, there is enough stardust around at the top of the log. Sunday should be a classic, and McIlroy is eager to get started.

“I can't go into tomorrow thinking it's my turn – I want to make it my turn,” McIlroy said after signing for a 5-under par third round of 67.

“I have to go out there and continue to hit the ball like I hit it on the back nine tonight. If I can do that and give myself plenty of chances, I'll have a real chance [of winning].”

After his magisterial opening round of 64 – his best in 11 trips to Abu Dhabi – McIlroy went cold in the second round, carding an even-par 72.

His 5-under par third round was a fair effort given the blustery conditions, although he did enjoy one slice of fortune, when he holed his 73 yard chip into the par-5 10th for eagle.

“Lucky it hit the pin,” McIlroy said. “It was going over the green and was going to be left with a tricky up-and-down for par.

“Sometimes that's what you need in golf tournaments, to be in contention and to end up winning, is those little strokes of luck every now and again.”

Hatton, who has himself played the 10th in 4-under across the three rounds so far, said he was disappointed with his day’s work, after signing for 71.

“I guess you're always going to have days like that, and you just try and get through it,” Hatton said. “The good thing is I'm still in contention going into the final round.

"I will be obviously one shot back which isn't ideal but a lot can happen in 18 holes, so hopefully things go my way tomorrow.”

The fact Fleetwood is in contention is testament to a remarkable turnaround.

He was 3-over par for the first nine holes on Thursday, but carded a pair of 67s on the following two days.

“I was kind of in control for most of the round,” Fleetwood said. “I got on that nice little run at 10, 11, 12 [each of which he birdied], holed a couple long putts, and then you're off and running.

“When you're out there, you keep hitting golf shots, keep doing whatever you need to do, and don't really think that much about whether you're playing that well.

“[It was a] really good round of golf, so I’m just happy to be in contention again.”

Updated: January 24, 2021 01:40 AM

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