Rory McIlroy looked certain to go five clear of the field when he went for the 18th in two in the third round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. But after finding water short of the green his up and down to save a par five and remain four ahead of the chasing pack felt almost as good. It also said a lot about McIlroy's ability to churn out a score.
The world No 1 cruised to the turn in 30 blows with another exhibition of ball striking and putting. And while a short birdie miss at the 10th seemed to unsettle him and he struggled a little coming home, he still picked up another birdie at the 17th before holing a curling, left to right 10 footer home to save par at the last for a 66 and a four shot lead over Morten Ørum Madsen of Denmark on 20 under par.
In just his second tournament of a year in which he chases a career Grand Slam of Majors, the 25 year old threw down the gauntlet early on with an opening birdie before picking up four shots in his next seven six holes.
"I feel like I could be a little but more (under par) but I am not going to complain," McIlroy said after his approach from the semi-rough at the last came out "spinny" and short in the water. "I'm four ahead going into the last day so I have put myself in a great position to win tomorrow."
He was still pleased to keep his score going on the back nine despite losing momentum and his par saving putt at the last meant he has now gone 36 holes bogey free and dropped just one shot all week, at his final hole on Thursday.
"It almost felt as good as a birdie. I didn't want to give anything back to the field. When you don't make any mistakes it makes it that much hard for the rest of the field and that's what I'm going to try and do again tomorrow."
Madsen shot a 66 to sit alone in second on 16 under par with eight-time Ryder Cup player Lee Westwood was two shots further back on 14 under par courtesy of a 69.
“I didn't put a foot wrong on the front nine and when I missed that little short putt on ten, it seemed like that momentum I had just sort of went away and I had to scramble a little bit for pars coming in," McIlroy said. "It was nice to make one birdie on 17 and then it was a great save on the last. It was nice to go out there today with no bogeys so I can't complain. It’s another good round and I’m in a great position going into tomorrow.
“The greens got firm and the wind got up a little bit so it was hard to get the ball close to the hole. You had to hit really quality shots to give yourself chances for birdies, and I didn't quite do that on the back nine like I did on the front.
“I've been in this position many times before so I know the pitfalls that are waiting out there. It's just a matter of sticking to the same game plan, being aggressive, making committed swings and giving myself as many chances for birdies as I can.”
Madsen said: “Obviously I felt pretty confident from the round I played yesterday. That was one of my best rounds ever. It’s hard to go out and shoot a low number again coming from yesterday.
“I felt solid and more relaxed today actually than I did yesterday. I was nice and calm all the way, putted well and hit the ball solid too. I wasn't really in any major trouble, so that was nice.
“Obviously he's going to be tough to beat. He looks like he's playing pretty solidly out there, as well. I'm just going to go out tomorrow and see if I can play some of the same golf that I played today.
“I won't be too disappointed if I don't win tomorrow. I'll be happy if I do what I set out to do and play pretty solidly.”
Westwood was also happy with his performance and feels he has a chance, insisting: “Any time you're in the last group in a tournament, you feel you've got a chance to win. You never know what's going to happen.
“I was pleased with the way I played today, arguably as good as I played on the first day. I played really solid, one or two poor shots got penalised, especially nine - I took a six there. But all in all, first week of the year, I'm pleased with where all aspects of my game are at.
“I wasn't in Abu Dhabi and I didn't watch it. I know he (Martin Kaymer) had a ten‑shot lead at some stage, but I've been ten behind somebody with nine holes to play and they have made a good putt on 17 to stay one in front. Golf's a funny game and anything can happen out there.
“I'm normally a slow start to the year. I've had six weeks off, so I wasn't sure whether my scoring would be there and whether I would be sort of match fit, but all aspects of my game have pleased me this week so far.”
After two immaculate days on the greens — he had just 50 putts in two rounds — Graeme McDowell came down to earth with a bump, using the blade 32 times in a level par 72.
Tied for third overnight, he was one of the few to keep pace with McIlroy early on as he birdied the second, fourth and sixth to get within one on 15 under.
But he made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the middle of his round and bogeyed the seventh, ninth and 12th before parring his way home.
Tied for eighth, eight shots behind McIlroy, he'll still be pleased to have a chance of a top 10 in his first outing of 2015.
Michael Hoey was the only Irish player other than McIlroy to break par, firing a one under 71 despite dropping two shots in his last four holes.
At three under, Hoey is tied for 60th with Peter Lawrie 70th on one under after a bogey at the 18th led to a 73.
Damien McGrane birdied the second and third but he's had a disappointing week with the putter and a 74 left him alongside Lawrie on one under.
Omega Dubai Desert Classic, 54 holes
196 R McIlroy (Nir) 66 64 66,
200 M Madsen (Den) 71 63 66,
202 L Westwood (Eng) 65 68 69,
203 B Wiesberger (Aut) 64 69 70, S Gallacher (Sco) 66 67 70, A Sullivan (Eng) 65 68 70, D Willett (Eng) 67 66 70,
204 G McDowell (Nir) 67 65 72, R Paratore (Ita) 68 66 70, R Rock (Eng) 68 67 69, E Grillo (Arg) 67 68 69, M Warren (Sco) 66 65 73, P Uihlein (USA) 65 69 70, A Noren (Swe) 68 67 69, P Larrazábal (Esp) 69 66 69,
205 S Benson (Eng) 66 66 73, G Stal (Fra) 69 69 67, T Aiken (RSA) 68 71 66,
206 P Lawrie (Sco) 69 71 66, H Stenson (Swe) 70 66 70, B An (Kor) 70 70 66, N Colsaerts (Bel) 65 74 67,
207 M Carlsson (Swe) 71 71 65, M Kieffer (Ger) 66 68 73, D Lipsky (USA) 68 71 68,
208 J Garcia Pinto (Esp) 70 66 72, W Ormsby (Aus) 69 69 70, J Luiten (Ned) 68 70 70, P Waring (Eng) 69 67 72, R Green (Aus) 70 68 70, K Broberg (Swe) 69 69 70, T Jaidee (Tha) 71 68 69, D Van Der Walt (RSA) 69 73 66,
209 A Hansen (Den) 66 72 71, M Kaymer (Ger) 67 69 73, R Jacquelin (Fra) 71 71 67, M Foster (Eng) 73 69 67, D Howell (Eng) 71 69 69, G Bourdy (Fra) 69 71 69, G Havret (Fra) 68 71 70, H Otto (RSA) 66 73 70,
210 B Dredge (Wal) 71 71 68, A Cañizares (Esp) 72 69 69, E Espana (Fra) 70 70 70, R Fisher (Eng) 71 68 71, A Levy (Fra) 72 68 70,
211 F Aguilar (Chi) 70 71 70, M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra) 70 70 71, Y Yang (Kor) 67 73 71, G Mulroy (RSA) 69 70 72, A Wall (Eng) 69 70 72, T Lewis (Eng) 68 73 70, A Johnston (Eng) 68 72 71,
212 T Hatton (Eng) 71 69 72, J Campillo (Esp) 67 70 75, M Ilonen (Fin) 67 71 74, R Bland (Eng) 71 69 72, S Jamieson (Sco) 74 68 70, A Quiros (Esp) 73 69 70,
213 D Brooks (Eng) 69 73 71, M Hoey (Nir) 72 70 71, M Lampert (Ger) 71 67 75, T Pieters (Bel) 69 69 75, T Fleetwood (Eng) 72 70 71, B Grace (RSA) 73 69 71, O Farr (Wal) 73 68 72,
214 J Palmer (Eng) 74 68 72, D Foos (Ger) 71 71 72, E Els (RSA) 72 70 72,
215 C Doak (Sco) 72 70 73, M Baldwin (Eng) 71 71 73, P Lawrie (Irl) 73 69 73, E Molinari (Ita) 70 72 73, D McGrane (Irl) 71 70 74,
216 R Ramsay (Sco) 71 70 75.