DUBAI //So much for the sense of anti-climax, then. A season-ending event with the Race to Dubai already decided was suggested to offer little more than a quiet conclusion to 2012.
Yet, judging by the chatter yesterday at Jumeirah Golf Estates, this DP World Tour Championship actually means something. At least to Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald, the top two players in the world, who posted a pair of third-round 66s to lead the field, tied on 17 under.
The ranking rivals exchanged places at golf’s summit during a few frantic months towards the beginning of the year, yet McIlroy’s sublime second half to the season – he was triumphed three times since August – ensures he begins today’s round comfortably as world No 1.
Underlining that position is paramount.
“It’s very important,” said McIlroy, who this evening will be crowned Race to Dubai champion, having sewn up the trophy three weeks ago. “No matter what happens I’ll be No 1 going into next year, but it’ll be nice to put an exclamation mark on it.
“I really want to win, I think that’s obvious. I wanted to finish the season well and this is a golf course and a really big tournament I want to play well in.
“I’ve been very motivated this week for some reason. Coming off the back of a missed cut last win [in Hong Kong] you’re motivated to try and get back in the right direction and keep going forward.”
Standing in McIlroy’s tracks, though, is a formidable obstacle. Donald measures as one of the shorter players on the European Tour – in stature and in driving distance – yet his game from 100 yards in is unerringly dependable.
The world No 2 enjoys the Earth Course, too, having failed to register a bogey in 100 consecutive holes here, the last a five on the eighth during last year’s second round.
“Well, if you look at it logically, it means he’s due a bogey,” said McIlroy following a round that included only one of his own, on the first. The Northern Irishman recovered sufficiently to fire five birdies and an eagle.
“You just have to concentrate on yourself and not think about what Luke’s doing. Every time I’ve went out with a chance to win I’ve played well, and whether that means I’ve won or been beat like in China against Peter Hanson [in last month’s BMW Masters], I’ve still played well and given myself a good chance.
“That’s what I want to do tomorrow.”
For Donald, winner of the 2011 season crown, today represents an opportunity to end the campaign with consecutive titles. The Englishman took the Dunlop Phoenix trophy in Japan last Sunday, although he realises a chasing pack headed by Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, both major championship winners three shots behind, means it is not merely a shootout between him and McIlroy.
“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, you’re going to come away feeling good about things.
“But you can’t get too complacent. Obviously this is a course that can throw out some low scores, and there are some great players behind Rory and I.
“Rory’s hitting it so far right now, so it’s a different course for us. But I know how to play to my own strengths and that’s what I’ll be concentrating on. It’s not that difficult for me; I just have to play my own game and not get ahead of myself.”
Behind Schwartzel and Oosthuizen lies Branden Grace, another South African with victory in his sights. However, the four-time winner this season, tied-fifth on 12-under alongside Joost Luiten, believes Donald, especially, will take some stopping.
“It’s going to be hard to catch Luke,” Grace said. “He played world class today, the way he putted was remarkable. Everything he looked at, he made. That’s why he’s No 2 in the world.
Perhaps the only man capable of stopping him, then, is golf’s No1.
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