DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Rory McIlroy sank a short birdie putt on the 18th hole Saturday to remain tied with Luke Donald as the world's two top-ranked golfers pulled three shots clear of a star-studded field after the third round of the Dubai World Championship.
The top-ranked McIlroy, who has already wrapped up the European and PGA Tour money titles, struggled early when he bogeyed the first hole and missed several makeable birdie putts. But he improved on the back nine, sinking a 30-foot eagle putt on 14 to go with three birdies for a 6-under 66.
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Donald also had a 66 and is tied with McIlory with a 17-under total of 199.
“I've done a majority of my scoring this week on the back nine and that's the way it went today,'' McIlroy said. “Took me a few holes to adjust. But once I got comfortable, I started to hit some good shots and give myself opportunities for birdies.''
Donald had his third consecutive bogey-free round and has now gone 100 holes at the Dubai tournament without one. If he wins Sunday without carding a bogey, he will match the feat of Sweden's Jesper Parnevik, who won the 1995 Scandinavian Masters without dropping a shot.
“I was, again, just trying to play solid golf, minimize mistakes,'' said Donald, who won in Japan last week to overtake Tiger Woods for the No. 2 spot in the rankings. “I guess it's a testament to how I play the game. I kind of keep the ball in front of me and, when I get in trouble, I've got a good short game to bail myself out.''
South Africans Louis Oosthuizen (68) and Charl Schwartzel (67) are three shots back, while compatriot Branden Grace and Joostis Luiten of France are a further two shots behind. Seven others are six shots off the pace, including Scotsman Marc Warren, who started the day tied with McIlroy and Donald but had three bogeys on his first 12 holes to fall out of contention.
The round of the day, however, went to Jeev Milkha Singh. Still recovering from a hand injury and worried about his mother, who was hospitalized after a fall, the Indian golfer shot a 64 to match the course record and move into a tie for 25th. He strung together three consecutive birdies on the front nine and four straight after the turn in a round that included a total of nine birdies to go with a lone bogey on the 10th.
“I dedicate this round to my mother,'' Singh said. “She was in the ICU yesterday. I learned about it just before I teed off.''
Though McIlroy and Donald didn't play together, it seemed the world's top golfers were having a duel of sorts all day.
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Donald struck first, sinking two birdie putts on the first three holes, while McIlroy hit his opening drive into a bunker and settled for a bogey. McIlroy pulled a shot back with a birdie on No. 3 and then sank a 25-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole before Donald sank birdies on 7 and 9 to extend his lead.
But just when it seemed Donald might pull away, McIlroy made consecutive birdies on the 11th and 12th. With Donald extending his lead by two with a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 14, McIlroy needed something special to keep pace.
On the par-5 14th, McIlroy hit what he called a “great drive'' followed by a 4-iron that landed in the middle of the green. He curled the 30-foot putt to draw even with Donald.
“I was just trying to hit it on the green somewhere and give myself at least a chance for eagle and probably a two-putt birdie,'' McIlroy said. “But I got up there and it was 25, 30 feet away and I guess it was a downhill putt that I was just trying to get close. It was on a good line and it was a good speed and it was a bonus that it went in. Obviously, it got me tied, which was nice.''
Both players birdied the 18th to set up a season-ending duel between No. 1 and No. 2. Though the Northern Irishman has the top ranking locked up, a victory Sunday would affirm his spot as the world's best golfer heading into 2013.
“It's very important no matter what happens tomorrow,'' McIlroy said. “I guess I'm No. 1 going into next year. But it will be nice to put an exclamation mark on, if you want.''
For Donald, a victory would serve as a revenge of sorts. McIlroy took the No. 1 ranking from him earlier this year and then went out and matched the Englishman's feat of winning both tour money titles in 2011. The two haven't played in a final round together since 2007 and that was when Donald was ranked 17th and McIlroy 233rd.
“In terms of my own confidence, it would be a great way to finish off the year,'' Donald said. “Any time you're playing against the best player in the world, if you can go head-to-head and come out on top, yeah you're going to come away feeling good about things.''
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