Majestic McIlroy just one back as Dunne enters Abu Dhabi fray

Majestic McIlroy just one back as Dunne enters Abu Dhabi fray
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his second shot on the 18th hole during round three of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, 20 January, 2018. Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his second shot on the 18th hole during round three of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, 20 January, 2018. Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

When Chubby Chandler managed Rory McIlroy he said it was only a matter of time before the Holywood star learned to hit those little finesse shots that differentiated a young gun from an experienced old head.

McIlroy now hits all those subtle shots as he showed when making eight birdies (and his first bogey of the week) in a seven-under 65 to go into the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship just one stroke adrift of Ross Fisher and Thomas Pieters on 16-under par.

On a day when Paul Dunne also shot 65 and slipped almost unnoticed into the top 10 to be just four strokes off the pace on 13-under, McIlroy gave full reign to his creative powers.

With six top-three finishes, until four runner-up finishes in his last five visits to Abu Dhabi, he's overdue the first season-opening victory of his career.

If he does manage to get over the line it will, he admitted, be a confidence boost for the rest of the season. But it would also fulfil the first criteria Paul McGinley believes is the common denominator linking all recent Masters champions — an early-season victory.

If there's a criticism to be made of McIlroy in recent years is that he doesn't take advantage with his wedges and makes too many unforced, tactical errors.

Subtle shots were not always part of his repertoire but he's worked hard on that aspect of the game over the winter, seeking more control. 

"I've been doing a lot of stuff like that in the off time with TrakMan and stuff, trying to play around with different clubs and different numbers," he said. "I mean, even I hit a little 8-iron into 14 today, which was probably a 9-iron yardage.

"I just didn't feel comfortable with it. So I just sawed off a little 8-iron. I'm really comfortable with those shots. Those are shots I worked on a lot over the last three months, and it was nice to see a couple that I needed today and I was able to pull one off."

Winning, he said, would "mean a lot" as it's been close to 18 months since his last victory. But after taking 102 days off to get his body and mind back to full fitness, it might be the catalyst he needs to get right back to the top of the game.

"It would mean a lot," he said. "It's felt like a while since I've won and just to give myself these chances; I gave myself a chance at the end of the year at Close House and wasn't able to do it.

"Paul Dunne played too well for me. I'm excited to get back on the horse and give myself another chance tomorrow.

"I'm really pleased [with my game]. I said all week, I felt like this is where my game was in practice, but it's always different trying to go from the range on to the golf course, and even in practise rounds, I felt like I was playing well but it's still different whenever you get a card in your hand and you're in competitive play.

"But to see how I've played over the past three days and how comfortable I've been out there hitting certain shots and scoring and getting up-and-down, and just really getting my golf head back on. I've been really pleased with that part of it."

Physically, he insisted he's 100 percent fit and when asked about his tee shot at the ninth, where he appeared to hold his side, he said: "No, not at all. I think it was a bad tee shot and probably just grabbing on to something to make it not go in the water, but nothing at all, no."

After going bogey-free two days in a row for the first time in more than two years, his first dropped shot of the week arrived at the par three 15th.

But he made amends by chipping in for birdie from the front of the 17th, then two-putted for another at the last.

"I wouldn't say it felt nice to bogey the 15th, but least I have the bogey now and I've got it out of the way now and I'm not thinking about it anymore," he said of the end of his longest bogey-free streak on the European Tour.

"It was a good bogey in the end. My scrambling has been really good, a couple of key up-and-downs, and that's helped a lot.

"There's a couple of nice either putts or chip-ins or up-and-downs out there that kept my momentum going, and I'll need to do all that again tomorrow if I want to have a chance."

With the top 15 on the leaderboard covered by just five shots, he'll try to ignore the leaderboards for another nine holes at least.

"Just go out and try and shoot the best score I possibly can," he said of his game plan for Sunday. "I felt really comfortable, really relaxed out there. Haven't been looking at leaderboards too much.
"Just been trying to play my game, and it's going pretty well so far, so I'll try and do the same thing."

Dunne is one of the men lurking in the pack behind Fisher and Pieters and at 78th in the world, he knows a big finish will bring many world ranking points.

Having played alongside Matt Fitzpatrick, who was nine under after 12 but eventually shot 63 in perfect conditions, Dunne is hoping the wind picks up as forecast and gives him a chance of making a run at the leaders.

"The greens are rolling well, and if you get no wind and good greens, the scoring is always going to be good for people who are playing well," he said.

"I think tomorrow, more wind in the forecast and I expect the scoring to be more moderate. But yeah, it seems like a birdie-fest, especially playing with Matt. He was 8-under through ten. I was 4-under through ten and I felt like I was 2-over. It was a good group.

Expecting to be five shots rather than four behind, he said: "You probably need a bit of weather like that to be able to pick up ground. Because if the weather is good and you start five back, you're going to have to shoot 9- or 10-under to catch the leader.

"I think it brings more people into in with a chance and hopefully, I can get off to a quick start, given the chance."

Having won the British Masters last year, Dunne will not be lacking in confidence if he gets a sniff of victory.

"Yeah, maybe a bit more confident, because I've done it before, I know I can do it," he said. "I think before you win your first one, you kind of hope you can do it and you think you can, but if you haven't done it, you're not 100 percent sure.

"I know I can hit shots when I need to. It's just that hopefully it's my week."

Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood has a fantastic opportunity to emulate Martin Kaymer and record back-to-back Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship victories after the Englishman posted a third round 67 to move to 15 under alongside countryman Matt Fitzpatrick heading into the final day.

Fitzpatrick produced a quite stunning third-round performance, birdieing seven of his first nine holes to get to the turn in 29.

Another two birdies – on the tenth and 11th holes – had the 23-year-old thinking he could shoot the European Tour’s first 59, but in the end, he settled for the lowest round of the week so far, a nine-under 63 which saw him join Fleetwood on 15 under. 

While McIlroy is reaping the benefits of his enforced period of rest, Pieters, Fisher, Fleetwood and Fitzpatrick are certainly benefiting from starting their seasons' early at last week's EurAsia Cup. 

Ross Fisher

“It was another good day. It was obviously great fun getting out with Thomas for the third day in a row. A lot of fun, a lot of banter. I was just trying to hang on to him, and I felt like I played solid. Conditions got very windy and 17 and 18 were playing very tough.

“I’m very excited about having a chance to win the first event for me on The European Tour season. It is such a prestigious event here in Abu Dhabi, you only have to walk up 18 and see the list of past champions.

"So to have a chance to go out there tomorrow and have a chance of putting my name amongst that illustrious group of players would be great and I have to go out and play as well as I have done the first three days. I'm excited and looking forward to the challenge.”

Thomas Pieters

“I think I played pretty good today. I missed a lot of putts. I made a couple birdies early, which settled me down. The back nine, I played very good. But I couldn't really make a putt. I hit one really close on 16 and 17, 18 were pretty disappointing. I didn't hit many good shots there but it's still nice to make a par on the last after the mess I made.”

Rory McIlroy

“It would mean a lot to win. I've had a lot of close calls here, I think about six top threes or something like that. I've never won on my first start back out. I was close last year in South Africa, but Stormy beat me in a playoff...

“I said all week, I felt like this is where my game was in practice, but it's always different trying to go from the range on to the golf course, and even in practice rounds.  I felt like I was playing well but it's still different whenever you get a card in your hand and you're in competitive play.”

Matt Fitzpatrick

“You're always thinking, 59, you really are. It's difficult not to. Even though I wasn't playing great, I knew how well I was putting and I felt if I could just give myself those chances on the greens, I could make the putts, basically.

“So I didn't feel it would take much to just pick up a few more birdies. I only needed four. I knew 18 was obviously reachable and then a couple of those, you just get it nearby the hole and you sort of try and take your chance. But you know, it's so difficult. DJ shot eight-under yesterday and apparently, it was the easiest eight-under the guys have ever seen, but mine was I little bit different story, probably the most difficult.

"At the end of the day, the game is all about scoring, and obviously, I've scored ridiculously well today. That's what's nice. I'm back in the tournament and it's something at the start of the year that I wanted to do is contend more.”

Tommy Fleetwood

“So far, so good. I’m in a really good place, and a couple of the guys played some unbelievable golf, and you can't do anything about that. But for me, it's been a really solid week so far. I’m happy with my game and that's just what I've got to go out and do tomorrow. Go out with the same attitude and hopefully I'll swing it the same and have a lot more chances and we'll see what happens.

“For me, I played great today. I'm going to take that into tomorrow, and it would be very satisfying to go back-to-back.”

Round three scores

Detailed scores

199 R Fisher (Eng) 67 67 65, T Pieters (Bel) 67 65 67,

200 Rory McIlroy (Nir) 69 66 65,

201 M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 68 70 63, T Fleetwood (Eng) 66 68 67,

202 T Detry (Bel) 70 68 64, A Johnston (Eng) 68 68 66, C Paisley (Eng) 69 67 66,

203 D Frittelli (RSA) 69 67 67, Paul Dunne (Irl) 68 70 65, B Grace (RSA) 72 64 67,

204 B Wiesberger (Aut) 67 68 69, A Levy (Fra) 69 65 70, D Johnson (USA) 72 64 68, F Zanotti (Par) 67 69 68, P Casey (Eng) 70 65 69,

205 J Wang (Kor) 71 67 67, J Campillo (Esp) 69 64 72, S Brazel (Aus) 67 68 70,

207 R Sterne (RSA) 68 72 67,

208 M Kaymer (Ger) 69 68 71, T Hatton (Eng) 69 70 69, D Burmester (RSA) 69 72 67, K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 70 70 68, H Stenson (Swe) 70 68 70, K Broberg (Swe) 69 69 70, R Fox (Nzl) 70 66 72, J Scrivener (Aus) 69 68 71, A Sullivan (Eng) 70 65 73,

209 B Stone (RSA) 69 70 70, M Ilonen (Fin) 68 74 67, S Han (USA) 73 67 69, J Luiten (Ned) 69 68 72, S Gallacher (Sco) 68 72 69, S Hend (Aus) 71 69 69, J Rose (Eng) 71 71 67, B Hebert (Fra) 72 68 69, M Korhonen (Fin) 73 68 68,

210 N Colsaerts (Bel) 69 70 71, N Bertasio (Ita) 70 71 69, L Slattery (Eng) 69 72 69, W Ashun (Chn) 71 67 72, R Ramsay (Sco) 68 70 72,

211 L Jensen (Den) 70 71 70, J Smith (Eng) 72 70 69, D Fichardt (RSA) 73 67 71, M Kuchar (USA) 72 70 69, T Bjørn (Den) 73 69 69, G Havret (Fra) 70 71 70, S Sharma (Ind) 71 70 70, B An (Kor) 71 70 70, M Wallace (Eng) 71 68 72, R Karlsson (Swe) 71 70 70, M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra) 71 71 69, J Lagergren (Swe) 69 73 69, M Manassero (Ita) 70 71 70, R Gouveia (Por) 72 70 69, C Pigem (Esp) 68 71 72,

212 S Vincent (Zim) 69 70 73, H Tanihara (Jpn) 66 72 74, A Otaegui (Esp) 70 69 73,

213 A Cañizares (Esp) 71 71 71, A Quiros (Esp) 70 72 71, J Kruyswijk (RSA) 75 67 71, H Porteous (RSA) 72 70 71, T Olesen (Den) 69 73 71, G Bourdy (Fra) 71 70 72,

214 S Kjeldsen (Den) 72 70 72, L Bjerregaard (Den) 72 69 73,

215 R Cabrera Bello (Esp) 72 70 73, G Stal (Fra) 72 69 74