Majestic McIlroy remains on course for Emirates hat-trick
Thorbjorn Olesen finishes impressively
Sky Sports Golf, 8.30am Sunday
Story so far
Haotong Li started the Dubai Desert Classic as a 110-1 chance, but the Chinaman is one shot ahead at the top of the Emirates Club leaderboard going into the final round.
Li, whose only European Tour victory came in his home country in the 2016 China Open, fired a third-round 64 to overtake Rory McIlroy in Dubai. McIlroy had moved two shots clear of the field at the halfway stage, but an over-par front-nine in round three stalled his bid for a third Desert Classic title.
McIlroy, alone in second and two shots clear of third place, is odds-on for victory with most bookmakers. Some evens quotes are available, though, about the former world number one and four-times Major champion, who could be backed at 5-1 on tournament-eve.
Haydn Porteous and Alexander Levy are tied for third spot. Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick were closest to McIlroy in the ante-post betting, but all appear to have run their race. Stenson, eight shots behind in 21st spot, is the closest of the quartet to the lead.
-20 Haotong Li
-19 Rory McIlroy
-17 Haydn Porteous, Alexander Levy
-16 Andy Sullivan
-15 David Horsey
-14 Chris Paisley, Branden Grace, Jeunghun Wang, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Thorbjorn Olesen, David Lipsky, Dylan Frittelli, Tyrrell Hatton
Evens R McIlroy, 9-4 H Li, 10 A Levy, 18 H Porteous, 25 A Sullivan, 50 T Hatton, B Grace, 70 R Cabrera-Bello, 90 D Horsey, 100 bar
Rory McIlroy lost his way for nine holes of round three, perhaps unsettled by the peculiar nature of having to finish his second round in the morning before embarking on the official weekend action, but the swagger immediately returned and he remains the man to beat.
Friday morning fog delayed the start of play for three hours, meaning McIlroy had to take on 25 holes on Saturday. He birdied five of the seven holes he tackled in the first session to assume control of the tournament, but started the second session badly before giving himself a stern talking-to at the turn.
An eagle at the tenth kickstarted McIlroy's third round and he appears to have come through the long Saturday unscathed. The Northern Irishman has clearly got his body and mind in tremendous fettle for the start of this campaign, and his golf game is also in mint condition.
McIlroy's much-maligned wedge play was good enough to get close to the pin on the 18th hole and he rolled in a confident birdie putt to get within a shot of Haotong Li. The Chinaman must realise that a one-shot advantage over such a formidable opponent counts for little. The proven champion – McIlroy has won 20 times in total on the two main tours – is an overwhelming favourite against a 22-year-old who has never triumphed outside his homeland.
McIlroy is much more confident on the Emirates greens, where he has triumphed twice before, than he was at Abu Dhabi last week. He says he sees the lines much clearer in Dubai, and his putting stroke has looked excellent for three days. McIlroy is driving further than anyone this week, but also holing his share of putts, which makes him a fearsome proposition.
Li's China Open success came courtesy of a final-round 64 and he has no experience of successfully defending a lead on the European Tour. The talent is there, but the self-belief is probably still missing. The switch from threeballs to twoballs does not help Li either – adding to the intensity of the situation.
McIlroy was a confident Racing Post Sport ante-post recommendation at 5-1 and there is no urge to abandon him now. Li looks a short price at 9-4 and cautious McIlroy backers eager to do some hedging can only access poor odds about the leader.
Three of the four Racing Post pre-tournament picks are in with a chance of delivering a payout, with 250-1 tip Haydn Porteous tied for third and 66-1 poke Thorbjorn Olesen sharing seventh. Porteous closed round three with three consecutive birdies and is a 23-year-old with two European Tour titles to his name and bundles to offer.
Final-round twoball punters are pointed towards Olesen, who adores the Middle East Swing and has been driving his ball superbly this week. The dashing Dane compiled a bogey-free, four-under-par, third-round back-nine, and it would be a surprise should he not continue the good work by outscoring David Lipsky in the 8.03am UK and Ireland time contest.
3pts 4-5 Coral, Ladbrokes
Follow us on Twitter @racingpostsport
Like us on Facebook RacingPostSport