Rory McIlroy led Stephen Gallacher by six early in his round, shot a three under par 69 and still finished second best to the Scotsman on a stupendous day of scoring at the Dubai Desert Classic. Even had the magic been with McIlroy he would have struggled to match the freakish pace of the defending champion, who leads by two on 16 under par after becoming only the fourth man in the history of the European Tour to come home in nine under.
After eight holes Gallacher stood one over for his round, the bogey at the eighth a fair measure of his indifferent golf. Maybe a tartan cat crossed his path. From nowhere the force came upon him. He birdied the next four holes, followed that by an eagle and, after a mundane par at 14, rattled off another four birdies on the spin to finish with a 63. Astonishing.
“I don't know where to start,” Gallacher said. “I struggled to be honest. I played the first four holes actually a bit ropey. I hit a good shot at 7, ended up at six‑foot and I missed it. And then bogeyed 8 and I thought, oh, well, because I wasn't feeling in sorts. Then I hit a beautiful drive and 7‑iron to about three‑foot at 9 and from then on I just never missed a shot.”
Gallacher has serious form here, finishing runner-up two years ago before converting in 2013. Were he to hang on today he would become the first to retain the trophy. He certainly knows the way home. “Well, the thing is you have good memories and good thoughts of what’s happened before. That can sort of lift you out of your game.”
To help him on his way Gallacher, ranked 67 in the world, will be decked out in the same black and grey kit in which he won 12 months ago. He goes out in the final group with McIlroy, who had not an inkling of what was going on with Gallacher until he reached the last green.
The sublime golf of the opening day, when McIlroy returned a 63 of his own, has been absent in rounds two and three. The imperious driving of day one has yet to return, forcing McIlroy straight to the range last night in search of the keys to his game.
He isn’t far away. Gallacher sank two 30-footers and another from 25 feet. Putts from 12-15 feet were routine, including one at the last to seal his record-equalling back nine. If McIlroy were half as lethal on the greens yesterday he would have been long gone.
Defending a lead on the final day is never easy, especially at a big event with the world no.6 for company. Gallacher surrendered a three-shot advantage at the start of the final day a year ago before prevailing by three, helped in no small part by a chipped eagle at the 16, one of five big birds posted that week.
McIlroy had all he could handle with big-hitting Brooks Koepka before the 23-year-old American let excitement get the better of him with three bogeys in four holes on the back nine. Kroepka went measure for measure with McIlroy off the tee and was deadly on the greens, curling one in from 40 feet across a six-foot break.
Seeking to leave some sort of mark on the afternoon McIlroy put it all together at the reachable par-4 17th, his drive easily locating the green, if not the cup, which would have netted him $2.5 million at a stroke. “Yeah, would have paid for a wedding,” McIlroy said. “I was thinking it was good. You never know because you can’t really see the pin. I got up there and saw the pitch mark. It must have just run by the hole.”
Gallacher was very much third fiddle behind McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who trails by 11 after a 70 yesterday, in the premier group of the opening two days. He sets out for the final reckoning with alpha billing. McIlroy went out in the final group a fortnight ago in Abu Dhabi and came up one shy. He’s minded to put that right. “Stephen was on fire today. I need to focus on my game not on what he is doing, and make a few putts.”