Li Haotong on unfamiliar ground as he leads Omega Dubai Desert Classic
Li Haotong labelled his first competitive round of golf alongside Rory McIlroy “quite a great experience”.
Just as well he gets to do it all over again on Sunday, even though by then there may be slightly more pressure to handle. That’s what happens when you lead the Omega Dubai Desert Classic after three rounds. Having won only once previously on the European Tour, Li holds a one-shot advantage over McIlroy, thanks to Saturday’s superb third-round 64.
It guaranteed that he goes out in the final group in the final round, walking the fairways with a two-time winner of the tournament and a four-time major champion.
Compared to McIlroy, 22-year-old Li is a relative novice. In fact, he is when it comes to 54-hole leads.
“I've never been this this position before, so it's going to be fun out there tomorrow,” he said. “Hopefully I can do my best out there and have some low scores.”
Low scores were the order of the day at Emirates Golf Club, when only Andy Sullivan's 63 bettered Li’s output. The world No 60 could be more than content with his work, though, since it included four birdies on each nine and not a single dropped shot.
Beginning the third round two behind leader McIlroy, Li concluded it on top of the leaderboard, on 20-under. It was a solitary stroke off the lowest 54-hole lead in the tournament’s 29-year history.
Given he was out in the afternoon's last group with McIlroy and Welshman Jamie Donaldson, it was an extremely impressive showing. To his enormous credit, Li seemed comfortable throughout.
“I just wanted to play by myself and play my game,” he said. “I thought if I just stayed patient, I'll play good. So just stayed patient all day.”
Patience will be key as he goes in search of his second European Tour victory. As will a continuation of his fine play, what with McIlroy hot on his heels. The Northern Irishman began his day early on Saturday, returning to the Majlis to complete his second round following Friday’s fog delay.
For his third round, he shot a 68. A birdie on 18 saw him home in 32. It could prove crucial.
“It was good to knock that birdie in at the last and stay within one of Li,” McIlroy said.
“I'll probably need to play a bit better tomorrow to win, but it's two weeks into the season and I've given myself a second chance to win a tournament. Looking forward to tomorrow.”
So too, no doubt, will Frenchman Alexander Levy and South African Haydn Porteous. The pair lie one back from McIlroy, in a tie for third, on 17-under.
In his third full season on tour, Porteous appears delighted just to be in contention.
“This is the reason why I started playing golf,” he said. “To tee it up with the world's best and compete with the world's best is just a dream come true.”
- Round 4: Pairs and tee times (UAE)
- Round 3: An ace for Alexander Levy, but greater prize may await
- Round 2: Rory McIlroy completes delayed second round in style
- Round 1: Jamie Donaldson holds the advantage but Rory McIlroy encouraged by his form