Rory McIlroy struggled to a “ragged” 72 but still kept new pacesetter Lee Westwood in his sights on a jam-packed leaderboard the Dubai Desert Classic.
The 22-year old went out in level par with a birdie at the second erased by a bogey at the seventh, where he holed a 30 footer for his four after coming up short in the lake with his tee shot.
And in the end he did well to limp home in level par, mixing three bogeys and three birdies to slip back to tied fifth and two shots behind Westwood, who could claim back the world No 2 ranking on Sunday,
“It was pretty ragged to say the least,” McIlroy said after a two-putt birdie at the last. “Conditions were a little tougher - the wind was up and that put me off a little bit.
“The greens got firmer and the pin positions were a little tougher. I’ll go to the range and try to iron it out.
“I just had to try to hang in there and stay as close to the lead as I could. To be only two back is a bonus - I feel it could have been worse.
“Two shots over 18 holes is nothing. I still feel in a pretty positive frame of mind and the windier it is tomorrow the better. It will make it a tough battle.”
McIlroy’s round started to unravel when he took six on the par-five 10th, But while he birdied the par-three 11th and the 13th, he failed to get up and down from a bunker on the 14th and then sliced into tree at the 16th and dropped another shot.
He did well to save par at the 359-yard 17th when he went for the green with the driver but pulled it into a small bush and after hacking out rescued his four with a superb chip.
The US Open champion was tied for the overnight lead with Thomas Bjorn but the Dane also had a bad day, dropping shots at three of his last four holes for a 73 that relegated him tied ninth on 12 under.
That’s still just three shots behind Westwood, who took command of a packed leaderboard when he hit seven birdies in a five under 67 to lead by a stroke from Stephen Gallacher (68), Marcel Siem (68) and Rafael Cabrera Bello (70) on 15 under par.
Chasing his third win from his last six starts following victories in Sun City and Thailand at the end of last year, Westwood said: “It’s not like I’ve forgotten how to win
“I’ve won 30-odd times, so I’m used to knowing what to do when I’m leading. I played nicely again.
“I got off to a good start with three birdies in the first four, hit a lot of quality iron shots and rolled the ball well on the green.”
McIlroy is in a four-way tie for fifth with nattily dressed Swede Joel Sjoholm, who outscored playing partner Shane Lowry by seven shots when he fired a 66 to get to 13 under.
Lowry’s 73 was a big disappointment as he slipped back into the pack on five under.
The Clara made drove the ball well again but hit just nine greens with his costliest mistake leading to a double bogey six at the ninth.
Peter Lawrie and Gareth Maybin both shot two under par 70s but moved up just four places to tied 35th on five under.
As for Damien McGrane, the Meath man could not repeat the fireworks on Friday’s 65 and after bogeys at the seventh and 11th, he birdied the 13th and 14th to card a 72 that left him tied 45th on four under.