Saturday 21 September 2019

New-found finesse puts McIlroy back in control

Rory McIlroy reacts yesterday on the 1st hole during the third round of the Abu Dhabi Championship in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Kamran Jebreili/AP
Rory McIlroy reacts yesterday on the 1st hole during the third round of the Abu Dhabi Championship in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Kamran Jebreili/AP

Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy is in a familiar position in Abu Dhabi, a shot off the 54-hole lead on a course where he has been runner-up on four occasions. More significant, however, has been the quality of his play in a first tournament appearance since early last October.

This performance suggests he has been listening to calls for him to eliminate silly errors from his play. McIlroy has carded only one bogey so far, which came on the short 15th in yesterday's 65, representing a run of 40 faultless holes since his start last Thursday.

The comparison with his previous tournament appearance in last season's Dunhill Links Championship, is quite stark. After 40 holes over St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, he had conceded no fewer than 13 strokes to par. And they included two double-bogeys and a triple, which is tantamount to suicidal profligacy for a top-quality tournament professional. Small wonder he finished 63rd.

Granted, scoring conditions in the sunshine of the Gulf are a lot more amenable than autumn on the east coast of Scotland, but it's his change of strategy which has been especially interesting.

Indeed, a fascinating aspect of this latest performance has been the way, by his own admission, McIlroy has modified key aspects of his game. Rather than attempting to overwhelm the opposition with power-play - there are seven players ahead of him in driving distance - he has, in fact, been over-clubbing so as to achieve greater finesse to his approach play.

He talked about hitting an eight iron for nine-iron distance to the 14th yesterday. And there was a beautifully-executed cut shot with a long iron to the heart of the 18th green, to finish with a birdie four. This is a new McIlroy, determined to exercise maximum control.

"It was good," he acknowledged afterwards, "another great confidence-builder. It would mean a lot for me to go on and win tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it."

Inevitably, he acknowledged near misses at this venue. Apart from those four runner-up finishes, he has finished in the top three on a further two occasions. Then there is the challenge of attempting to start a season with a win for the first time since his first full year on tour, back in 2008.

Though he went on to express delight at the quality of his putting, the most telling impact so far has been the excellence of his play from tee to green. To be 16 under par after averaging 30.5 putts per round, illustrates the point.

An impressive day for the only two Irishmen to make the cut saw Paul Dunne also card a seven-birdie 65 while matching McIlroy's achievement of only one bogey in his 54 holes. Dunne goes into today's final round in a share of ninth position on 13 under par.

Meanwhile, a scrambling par on the potentially treacherous, 562-yard 18th, allowed the Belgian Ryder Cup player, Thomas Pieters, to share the lead with Ross Fisher on 17 under par. McIlroy is a stroke behind in third place, on his own. And Europe's number-one, Tommy Fleetwood, remains in a challenging position to retain the title.

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