Rory McIlroy is gunning for a maiden win could be the lightning bolt that could give the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open the 100 million volt boost it needs to become a mega-event.
The world No 3 avoided the focus blackouts that have plagued him this year and ended a stop-start day three strokes clear of Masters champion Danny Willett on nine under par with three holes of his third round to complete this morning.
After going from one behind to three in front thanks to two birdies and 13 pars on a stop-start day marred by lightning delays, McIlroy said: “Today was a day to just hang in there and try not to make too many mistakes and that’s what I said I wanted to do today.
"No bogeys in 15 holes, that was good. I feel like I left a few out there, but at the same time, I can't complain with a three-shot lead going into tomorrow.
“I just have to approach it like I did today, just take whatever comes and just make sure I'm ready to go whenever they tell us to go play.
“I feel like my game is good enough that I’ll keep giving myself chances, hit fairways, hit greens, and if I can knock a few in, hopefully that will be good enough to get the job done tomorrow."
McIlroy had to put up with two suspensions due to lightning that delayed play by a total of three hours and 49 minutes before bad light stopped play at 8.29pm with Willett on the 15th and seven groups still to finish.
Intermittent heavy rain also ruined the party for the few fans from the 20,129 attendance that bothered to stay on for the late finish.
But McIlroy never wobbled all day and was two under par for his round after a near faultless display with nearest rival Willett two over for his.
McIlroy said: “It was unfortunate that we couldn’t get finished but hopefully we can come back in the morning weather permitting and finish it off and get a clear run of golf in the afternoon.
“It was just getting a little touch and go with the light there so they made a good decision.”
McIlroy left 15 footer for birdie at the 15th short and complained that he struggled to read the line on the par putt.
He said: “That green on 15 and this green on 16 are very shaded and there are a lot of trees around so. Even though it doesn’t look too dark those trees make it even darker.
“I struggled with the line on the last one so I just hit it straight and hoped it was on the right line.”
Looking forward to restarting on the par-five 16th at 7.30 am, he said: “It’s nice, especially with the tee up. Hopefully conditions are a little better. Two par fives with three holes to play — hopefully I can take advantage of those and get a couple of birdies. [The game] It’s feeling good.”
US based Scot Russell Knox followed his Friday 66 with a 70 to lead in the clubhouse on five under par alongside South African Richard Sterne, who still has three holes to play.
Frenchman Sebastien Gros looked likely to set the clubhouse target when he eagled the 16th to move to within three of McIlroy on six under par.
But he hit his tee shot into the Liffey at the 17th, hit his third into the hazard again, hacked across the fairway into the trees but then found water again at the green and racked up an eight to fall seven behind.
McIlroy is clearly in the driving seat and a win for the Holywood star is just what the event needs to continue its rise in the world echelons.
Paul McGinley, who took 80 in weather that mixed sunshine with heavy rain, three-putting four times, reckons McIlroy’s presence at the top and the good atmosphere at The K Club is great news.
“It’s a big success.,” McGinley said. “When Rory and Danny — the two best players — are up there fighting for the lead, a lot happens around that.”
One behind Marc Warren and Willett staring the day, McIlroy found himself tied for the lead when the leaders bogeyed the first.
But he was soon alone on top on eight under for the first time in his Irish Open career when he reduced the par-five, 568-yard fourth to a driver, an eight iron and two putts.
As Warren slipped back to three under par overall after six bogeys in his first 10 holes, Willett was strangely out of sorts,m going out in one over 37 to find himself two off the pace.
The Masters winner missed a three footer for par at the second, birdied the fourth but then bogeyed the sixth when he missed the green right and then dropped another shot at the seventh where he drove into the water.
Play was suspended of the first time at 3,30pm but resumed more than two hours later with McIlroy rolling in a birdie putt from three feet at the 10th after two huge hits to the 584-yard par five.
The four time major winner had to scramble to get out of trouble at the 11th, where he was in trees when play was suspended again for 26 minutes.
While McIlroy came back out and parred the 12th and the dangerous 13th to remain in control, lightning was seen and play was suspended again.
McIlroy came back out and saved par at the 14th as Willett was forced to get up and down from a trap at the 13th to remain three behind.
The Ulsterman then made a fine par at the 15th but with rain hammering down as he stood on the 16th tee, it was too dark to go on.
Willett was two over for the day but still happy to be in contention, insisting: “I’m not too far back. I’ve thrown a couple of silly ones away, but I think you’re going to do that in the conditions that there were.
“I’ll just get some rest and hopefully come out and have a good day tomorrow.”