It's quite a while since Rory McIlroy endured such a long walk on the dark side.
“I just feel like punching myself,” admitted the World No 1 after a third round 71 left his hopes of victory at the Abu Dhabi Championship in tatters.
For the second day in succession, McIlroy struck the golf ball sublimely, finding 12 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens but infuriatingly squandered at least half-a-dozen birdie chances during a torrid afternoon on the greens at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
As the 25-year-old Ulsterman amassed a harrowing total of 34 putts, he tumbled into a three way share of fifth, eight off the pace set by Abu Dhabi expert Martin Kaymer, who breezed to 20-under through 54 holes with a bogey-free round of seven-under 65.
Kaymer, 29, a sensational back-to-back winner of The Players and US Open Championships last summer, appeared certain to wrap-up his fourth career victory in Abu Dhabi as he swept into the final round six clear of his nearest challenger, talented Belgian Thomas Pieters, 22.
The German makes playing this testing course look so ludicrously easy, it’ll come as no surprise if he beats his own Abu Dhabi tournament record of 24-under for 72-holes. In the longer term, he offers a formidable threat to McIlroy’s in the Major Championship arena in 2015.
Rory McIlroy takes a selfie with Ian Walker, skipper of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team via a video link
Even when crisis threatened on the 10th hole, Kaymer added to his aura of invincibility around here by brilliantly holing-out from a greenside bunker to save par.
This mini-crisis arose when he pulled his approach to the par five into a thick bush and, after taking a penalty drop, hit his next into the trap. It was the first time he’d missed a green since his 10th hole (the first) on Friday, where he also found the cup from the sand.
While Kaymer appears to revel on the putting surfaces in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy endured a waking nightmare as he struggled to find the correct pace and line on the same greens.
His frustration with the putter was masked on Friday by McIlroy’s first hole-in-one in professional tournament play … but there was no such escape in the third round as the Holywood native endured his most frustrating day on the golf course since last summer’s second round 78 at the Scottish Open or his missed cut in June’s Irish Open at Fota.
McIlroy’s mood was thunderous and his expression grim as he struggled afterwards to explain what went wrong with his putting.
“You have just as good an idea as I have,” he shrugged. “I felt I misread a lot of my putts. I feel like I started all on line for the first part but struggled with the speed. So it was a combination of both.
“I tried to stay as patient as possible but it just was very frustrating. I kept giving myself birdie chances but was unable to convert any of them so it was disappointing to say the least. But I now have to go out and try and shoot a good low score in the final round and try to finish the week on a positive.
“It’s a case of trying to win the other tournament. Martin is playing in something a little different that everyone else. It’s obviously very unrealistic to imagine I’m going to catch him,” added McIlroy, who instead is aiming to wrap-up his third runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi in four years.
He made just two birdies yesterday, sinking an eight-footer at the par four sixth and a holing a putt of 15 feet at 12. More typical of a galling afternoon, however, was the eight-footer he missed for par at 13 after failing to find the green from wedge range in mid-fairway.
Otherwise, McIlroy performed magnificently from tee to green. “I’ve never felt more comfortable. I’m driving the ball great and it was just a matter of capitalising on the chances I gave myself,” he said. “It was such a wasteful day.”
After the promise of nice back-to-back birdies at seven and eight, Damien McGrane stalled on the back nine. A bogey six at 10 after laying up into the rough and then putting his approach in the greenside trap, was followed by eight straight pars for a 71 which did scant justice to a pinpoint performance off the tee. On five-under, he went in the final round in a tie for 45th.