World number two Rory McIlroy and one of the hottest young golfers on the planet, Cameron Young, will be the final pairing on day four of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club.
Sitting at three-under, 10 shots off the pace after 36 holes, a blistering, early nine-under 63 catapulted the defending champion up the leaderboard, temporarily taking sole possession of the lead as Young, who’d enjoyed a three-stoke lead over Adrian Meronk, double-bogeyed the par-3 seventh and followed up with a bogey-five at eight.
Despite the shaky opening nine, Young regrouped on the back, thanks in no-small measure to quality iron play, picking up birdies at 11, 13 and 17, though will be disappointed not to have a bigger advantage having missed a series of good birdie opportunities on the other holes.
“It would be a nice feeling (to win),” said Young, who is yet to record a victory on the PGA Tour, but has recorded runner-up finishes at the WGC Dell Technologies Matchplay and at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews.
“It’s one of those times that you feel like kind of at peace with what you’ve done and it’s something I would love to do tomorrow. I’ve put myself in another great place to have a chance and I’m happy with that.
“So if I go out and go through the process that we’ve kind of set up for tomorrow and see what happens.
He added: “I didn’t putt quite as well as I have the last few days and with a little bit more wind, it wasn’t that easy. I think all in all, it was a good battle.”
McIlroy had looked a little out of sorts on days one and two, but there was enough good stuff on show to know that he wasn’t far away. And today, it all clicked.
“I just thought if I could play the front nine better,” he explained afterwards. “I’ve played the front nine a little scrappily the last couple days. I thought if I could get off to a good start, I was a couple under through three, and I thought if I could pick one or two more up from that tough stretch from 5 through 9, and I ended up picking 3-up, birdieing 7, 8 and 9, which was fantastic. And then just kept it going into the back nine.
“I think for me, the key to this golf course is always the front nine because it is the tougher nine, and if you can play that nine well, you give yourself a ton of momentum going into the more scorable back nine.”
Though Young is still in pole position, McIlroy is a three-time tournament winner and now has his sights firmly set on a record-setting fourth.
“It would be amazing,” he said. “First player to get my name on it four times, yeah, it would be awesome. I’ve had so much success in Dubai, whether it be at this tournament or over at Jumeirah Golf Estates and Race to Dubais. It’s been a really, really good place to me. I love coming back here. I really enjoy my time here. Yeah, it would be amazing if I was able to get another win.”
Meronk, who’d birdied two of the first three, dropped shots at five and nine, before clawing his way back to -12 to tie McIlroy, but courtesy of posting his tally earlier, it is McIlroy who’ll join Young in the final group.
In what is surely a DP World Tour first, three of the four men in the final grouping will be Irish, with Irish professional Paul McBride taking up caddying duty for the week for former Wake Forest college teammate Young, alongside McIlroy and his caddie Harry Diamond.
It also gives McIlroy an opportunity to avenge his semi-final defeat to Young in last year’s WGC Matchplay, having lead 2UP with three to play before losing the match on the first playoff hole. And he’s a lot closer to the lead than he expected.
“I mean, I think anything within five probably,” he said when asked how close he needed to be to have a chance. “I don’t think I’m going to be five behind unless someone does something very special on the back nine. But yeah, anything within three, four, five shots, I’ll still have a chance.”
And it looks as though the winner will come from one of the leading trio, with Dane Rasmus Højgaard and China’s Li Haotong three shots further back, one ahead of Chilean Joaquin Niemann.
Meanwhile, Tom McKibbin has moved into contention for a first Rolex Series top-10 after shooting back-to-back two-under 70s on days two and three to reach -4, two shots shy of a tie for 10th.
Starting his day on the back nine, a bogey at the par-5 13th was far from the way he’d envisioned the day going, but he regrouped to birdie three of the closing five on the nine, before covering the difficult front nine in level-par – trading one birdie and one bogey – to end the day tied for 19th and very much trending in the right direction.