Short game woes and mental errors dented Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry's DP World Tour Championship chances as Rafa Cabrera Bello produced a Seve-like performance to grab a share the lead at Jumeriah Golf Estates.
McIlroy made back to back double bogeys for the first time since May, carding a 70 to fall four shots behind Cabrera Bello (65) and defending champion Henrik Stenson (68) on 10 under as Lowry ended up thoroughly frustrated by "schoolboy" errors as he posted a 72 and ended the day seven behind the leaders.
Race to Dubai winner McIlroy can still win the tournament and celebrate a double trophy lift on Sunday. But Lowry confessed that his title challenge is almost certainly over and he must "man up" in the final round if he is to secure the top 13 finish he likely needs to break into the world's Top 50 and earn a Masters invitation.
The 27-year old Offaly man can still secure that trip to Augusta National in the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa the week after next. But if he can put the bitter disappointment of his third round at the Earth Course behind him, he may still achieve his goal on Sunday.
"I suppose I am just disappointed because I played my way out of the tournament today," Lowry said after damaging bogey sixes at the 14th and 18th sent him running to the range to work off some of his frustration.
"I still have a chance of a good finish but I have no chance of winning really. I probably need to shoot 10 under to win. That’s the thing I am most disappointed about.
"Fair enough, if I have a good finish I’ll get in the top 50 and all that but I feel like the one thing my season is missing is a win. I feel like I am playing okay but not putting the scores together for the last two rounds."
Lowry was going along superbly after birdies at the third and seventh. But his mumentum was halted when he drove into a fairway bunker and dropped a soft shot at the ninth. From there, he was battling more mental than technical demons.
While he was not driving the ball as well as he might have liked, it was the bogey at the par-five 14th that left him fuming. And while he birdied the next, he missed the 18th with a five wood and flubbed a greenside pitch into the water hazard to run up another six. To say he was disappointed would be an understatement.
"It’s frustrating," he said. "To bogey 14 and 18, it’s pretty stupid more than anything else to be honest. I am normally lethal with that five wood and normally stand up and roast it into the middle of the green and make birdie.
"But it is where I am now and I have other things to focus on and I have to just try and man up and shoot four or five under tomorrow and that will get me in the Top-50 in the world and I will be in Augusta in April. I just have to go out and do it."
The six at the 14th was "a killer" he said, reflecting on his overly ambitious three wood approach and a fluffed chip.
Having made a similar course management error on the 18th in the third round of the Turkish Airlines Open last week, he was thoroughly disheartened.
"To make bogey from there is just a schoolboy error," Lowry said. "I do it too much on par fives. If you look at my par five scoring — I am supposed to be one of the best chippers in the world but my par five scoring is ridiculously bad. That was the reason for my bad play at the start of the year and the reason for my average score today.
"I had 240 front and hit three wood left of the green and flubbed a chip, chipped it on and missed the putt.
"I didn't fancy the second shot and still went for it. That’s stupidity really. Hit a nine iron down and a sand wedge on and you have a 10 footer for birdie. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I did it last week in Turkey as well. Same thing. I’ll learn some day."
McIlroy made six birdies in a 70 but back-to-back double bogeys at the 12th and 13th — his first aberrations since he made three double bogeys in a row in a second round 78 at the Memorial Tournament last May — took the wind out of his sails before he came back with birdies at the 14th and 18th to remain within touching distance to Stenson and Cabrera Bello.
“If I had not had those two holes, I would be right up there in the lead,” McIlroy said. “It makes life a little more difficult for myself tomorrow but hopefully I can get off to a fast start and try to put pressure on the guys ahead of me.
“I can't afford to stay patient tomorrow. I need to go and get some birdies from the off and see where I can go from there.”
Bunkered off the tee at the par-four 12th, he three-putted for a six and then needed four shots to find the green at the par-three 13th, where he fanned his tee shot right and flubbed two pitch shots before dribbling a putt wide from the fringe.
On the plus side, we can look forward to seeing the Ulsterman throw caution to the wind today.
“I need to be aggressive tomorrow,” he said of his game plan. “I need to go at pins. I need to try to hit it close and hole some putts.”
Cabrera Bello last won on the European Tour in the Dubai Desert Classic at the start of 2012 and now has a chance for a third European Tour win after some short game genius helped him add a seven under par 65 to his second round 64.
“It was a very special round for me today,” Cabrera Bello said after making four birdies in his last five holes thanks to an awesome short game display. “The short game and putting were unbelievable, probably the best day of my life for short game. I know when I play very good, I really believe I can beat anyone.”
Justin Rose is just three off the lead but knows that he’ll be playing for second if Cabrera Bello, winner of the 2012 Dubai Desert Classic, produces the kind of short game brilliance he showed yesterday.
“I watched an incredible round of golf today,” Rose said. “Rafa Cabrera Bello was unbelievable. He really struggled with his game the first few holes, up and down, up and down, up and down, and then got some flow going. He had 15 one-putts today. His short game was Seve-like. It was awesome.”
Stenson holed little on slick, grainy greens but still recorded four birdies in a blemish free 68 to remain on course for what would be his first win since he claimed their title by six strokes 12 months ago.
Having recorded two runner up finishes already this year, he wants to end a long season with a trophy on the mantelpiece. Still, it’s been gruelling physically and he’s simply praying he has enough gas in the tank to keep motoring through the finish line.
“This morning when I woke up, I wasn't jumping out of bed, if I put it that way, but what do you expect at age 38,” the Swede said with a grin. “I'm a little bit on the low side on energy but when the mind wants something, I'm sure we can pull through.
“It's a great championship, this one, and of course that would mean a lot to me to defend, and to get a win this season.
“We'll try and make it happen, but there are a lot of strong players out there and Rafa seems to be on fire. We'll see if we can hold him off tomorrow.”
McIlroy and his playing partner Richie Ramsay (75) were put on the clock following the world No 1's two double bogeys.
Having missed some early chances before slamming his foot on the accelerator with three birdies in a row from the fifth followed by another at the 10th to grab a share of the lead, those double bogeys severely dented his chances.
Cabrera Bello made seven birdies but it was his scrambling that set him apart as he got up and down eight times for par and took just 21 putts.
It was great for his score but might have cost him a few grey hairs.
“I feel like I have lost a few years of my life on this one,” he said. “Even though I was enjoying it out there being in contention, I did feel I had to work really hard for it. Especially at the beginning, I end up shooting three under on the front nine but could I have easily shot two or three over.
“My short game definitely saved me today. That's why it always seemed like the water was almost up to my neck, and managed to stay afloat.”
Having won the Dubai Desert Classic for the most recent of his two European Tour wins nearly three years ago, the Spaniard knows what it takes to win in the desert.
But with the top 13 on the leaderboard covered by just five strokes, a final round cavalry charge for the $1.3 million top prize is on the cards.
World No. 7 Rose is just three strokes off the lead on 11 under par after a 68 with McIlroy, Ryder Cup star Victor Dubuisson, the exciting young Dane Thorbjorn Olesen and 23-year old English rookie Tyrrell Hatton a shot further back.
Hatton needs to win to pip American Brooks Koepka for the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year title while Rose is clearly a huge danger man having made 19 birdies so far this week.
Out on level par, Rose went for broke on the back nine and came home in 32 for a 68 that keeps his hopes alive.
But even with tight pin positions making for tough scoring, he expects he’ll have to go low to have a chance.
“From what I've seen so far this week, I think they are sick of us shooting 24 under around here,” Rose said. “It's going to require a pretty low score."
Graeme McDowell was in no mood for chat after following two front nine bogeys with two back nine birdies for a 72 on a course that he clearly dislikes.
Tied for 41st on two under, McDowell kept moving as he said: "You don’t want to hear what I have to say. Look at my Saturday-evening quotes from last year, copy and paste.”
Michael Hoey had four birdies and two bogeys in a 70 and shares 58th in the 60-man field on five over
DP World Tour Championship, Jumeirah Golf Estates, Earth Course (Par 72)
202 H Stenson (Swe) 68 66 68, R Cabrera-Bello (Esp) 73 64 65,
205 J Rose (Eng) 71 66 68,
206 R McIlroy (Nir) 66 70 70, V Dubuisson (Fra) 71 68 67, T Olesen (Den) 67 70 69, T Hatton (Eng) 70 68 68,
207 R Karlsson (Swe) 71 68 68, M Warren (Sco) 71 71 65, J Luiten (Ned) 70 69 68, D Willett (Eng) 69 67 71, B Grace (RSA) 72 67 68,
209 K Broberg (Swe) 70 67 72, R Fisher (Eng) 69 73 67, P Larrazábal (Esp) 71 69 69, H Otto (RSA) 71 68 70, G Coetzee (RSA) 70 70 69, J Donaldson (Wal) 72 70 67, A Sullivan (Eng) 73 69 67, S Lowry (Irl) 66 71 72, T Bjørn (Den) 71 69 69,
210 B Wiesberger (Aut) 72 70 68, S Dyson (Eng) 73 70 67, L Oosthuizen (RSA) 69 71 70, T Fleetwood (Eng) 69 74 67,
211 F Molinari (Ita) 73 69 69, S Garcia (Esp) 73 69 69, S Gallacher (Sco) 72 68 71, R Ramsay (Sco) 67 69 75, E Pepperell (Eng) 76 69 66, T Jaidee (Tha) 72 72 67, D Howell (Eng) 71 67 73,
212 E Molinari (Ita) 69 74 69, E Els (RSA) 75 67 70, D Fichardt (RSA) 72 68 72, R Wattel (Fra) 71 70 71,
213 L Donald (Eng) 76 66 71, W Ormsby (Aus) 73 71 69, M Jiménez (Esp) 71 73 69, C Schwartzel (RSA) 72 71 70,
214 A Levy (Fra) 71 72 71, M Siem (Ger) 76 66 72, G McDowell (Nir) 72 70 72, T Aiken (RSA) 76 66 72, J Blixt (Swe) 70 74 70, I Poulter (Eng) 75 69 70,
215 O Fisher (Eng) 72 70 73, E Grillo (Arg) 68 75 72, N Colsaerts (Bel) 73 72 70, M Kaymer (Ger) 72 69 74, L Westwood (Eng) 70 71 74,
216 B Koepka (USA) 78 68 70, R Sterne (RSA) 71 74 71,
217 F Zanotti (Par) 73 72 72,
218 M Ilonen (Fin) 74 76 68,
219 O Wilson (Eng) 75 72 72,
220 M Baldwin (Eng) 75 74 71,
221 M Hoey (Nir) 73 78 70, D Lipsky (USA) 76 75 70,
222 M Manassero (Ita) 75 72 75