Monday 5 December 2016

McIlroy has more to give in bid to end his year in style

A third round of 65 has Holywood star on brink of third Vardon Trophy

Dermot Gilleece

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

Rory McIlroy: ‘I feel it could have been a lot better today. I’m playing lovely and if this had been the final round I’d be kicking myself’
Rory McIlroy: ‘I feel it could have been a lot better today. I’m playing lovely and if this had been the final round I’d be kicking myself’

Rory McIlroy faces his last round of the golfing year within sight of a third Race to Dubai title today. Yet he is doing so with curiously mixed feelings after a seemingly brilliant third-round 65 left him regretting missed opportunities, even with eight birdies on his card.

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It meant ending yesterday on 15-under par for the tournament, a stroke behind Andy Sullivan, who maintained the lead when holing a 10-footer for a resourceful par at the last. They will play together in the final pairing today, with everything on the line.

Delightful shirt-sleeve weather, with a breeze sufficiently fresh to make the odd shot particularly interesting, became the spur for some sparkling scoring. And having played well within himself during the opening two rounds, McIlroy seemed to switch to serious intent, no more so than on the 198-yard 13th hole.

This was where the irritation of a lone bogey on the 12th was promptly removed from his consciousness by a glorious seven-iron tee-shot which came to rest little more than four feet from the hole. It sparked a run of three successive birdies characterised by so much control from tee to green that he had only to produce competent putting to break par.

As it happened, his two-putt birdie on the driveable 15th lifted him into the lead with the title in sight. With the tee pushed forward on the long 18th, however, the prospect of a simple closing birdie faded when he pulled his drive into left rough. And having wedged beautifully to four feet, his putt for a four slipped past the target after his playing partner, Thongchai Jaidee, had missed from a foot further back.

Victory today would be hugely important to McIlroy, given the travails of four months ago when ankle damage in a soccer kick-about in early July seriously disrupted his summer schedule. On returning to action in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he was 17th behind Jason Day and his best finish since then has been a share of fourth place in the BMW Championship on the PGA Tour on September 20.

"I feel it could have been a lot better today," he said afterwards. "I'm playing lovely and if this had been the final round I'd be kicking myself. But I'm playing with a lot more trust in myself, which bodes well for tomorrow. I'm exactly where I want to be, in contention."

He added: "I'll focus on myself, set a target and try and win the golf tournament. I want to win this one. It's my last round of the season and I want to make the best of it. Give it my all and end the year on a high."

The Holywood star is already a two-time winner of the Vardon Trophy which is awarded to the leading player in the Race to Dubai, with successes in 2012 and last year, but he is seeking to emulate Christy O'Connor Snr with back-to-back triumphs. O'Connor did it in 1961 and '62 to match the earlier achievement of England's Charlie Ward in 1948 and '49.

Having gone to Dubai with a narrow lead of 1,612 points over his closest challenger, Danny Willett, McIlroy had stretched his advantage to two strokes by the halfway stage. It is now four, with the pressure appearing to weigh heavily on the Englishman who dropped right out of contention after covering 13 holes yesterday in only one-under.

Much to his credit, however, he responded with the timely boost of a birdie on the long 14th followed by an eagle-two at the driveable 15th and an up-and-down birdie on the last. "I finished pretty strong but I don't think we're going to see Rory come backwards," he said after a 67. "I think around 17-under is going to win and I'll have to dig in and see what I can do."

Winner at Sun City this time last year, Willett was previously a member of the 2007 Walker Cup team at Royal Co Down, though he failed to distinguish himself there. Either way, it seemed somewhat foolhardy of him to bait McIlroy with some ill-conceived pre-tournament comments, even if he could reflect on a first-round victory in the 2007 British Amateur Championship at Royal Lytham.

In the event, he saw fit to take a swipe at his would-be rival, eight years on, as having received preferential treatment in being allowed compete this weekend despite being one short of the mandatory 13 qualifying tournaments. McIlroy's response was pointed. Without naming the Englishman, he said: "If I can win more money in 12 tournaments than someone can win in 23, I don't see any reason why I should feel sympathy."

As a self-proclaimed citizen of the world, McIlroy is seeing fit to keep the horrors of Paris in his thoughts. This is being done through the symbol "Pray for Paris" - a simple outline of the Eiffel Tower surrounded by a circle - which he drew on the side of his cap. Then there was the experience last weekend of his manager, Sean O'Flaherty.

While his player was just arriving in Dubai, O'Flaherty was heading to the scheduled U2 concert in Paris, which was later cancelled. "It was both horrifying and heartbreaking," said O'Flaherty, "to witness people with such terror in their eyes. That's something you never want to see."

Meanwhile, though a third-round 69 reflected welcome improvement for Shane Lowry day on day, the disappointing nature of his scoring overall must have had him thinking prematurely of his next assignment in the $6.5m Nedbank Challenge in Sun City on December 4-7. Longer term, he remains determined to make the European team to defend the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National next year.

"I really feel that I can be there," he said. "But you can only concentrate on what you think is right and try to do well in tournaments. I think my schedule next year is very good in that I'm playing in all the right tournaments to make the team."

A gradual improvement in his Dubai form cannot be unconnected to the presence of his coach Neil Manchip. "It can sometimes be difficult, being on your own as I was in Turkey and China for the last few weeks," he said. "When things go wrong, you're trying to figure them out for yourself."

Though Lowry's putting (30, 29, 32 for the first three rounds) has left much to be desired, his main problem on the opening two days had to do with waywardness off the tee. His driving, in fact, was poor. But the struggle in China, where he finished 68th in the HSBC Champions and 56th in the BMW Masters, went beyond the simple process of hitting shots.

"Golf's strange," said Lowry, in one of his least profound observations. "Some weeks you're driving the ball well and some weeks it all comes together and you win the tournament. Some weeks you feel like you're putting well and your game is not holding up to what it should be."

He went on: "I'm a believer that maybe four or five times a year, your game fully comes together and you've just got to take advantage of that when it does." Firestone in August, when he had a stunning victory in the Bridgestone Invitational, was one such occasion. This weekend clearly is not.

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