McIlroy's hopes sink as Lee leads on Merit

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The Independent Online

Never has a man looked so disconsolate to find water in a desert. But then, Rory McIlroy's late capitulation in a quite spectacular third round of the Dubai World Championship here yesterday had seemingly put paid to him becoming the second youngest winner of the Order of Merit.

Instead, it is the impervious Englishman Lee Westwood who is standing on the brink of the biggest payday of his career. A £1.6 million cheque is now his to rip up. After a 66 and another stunning display of iron play, Westwood is on 15-under, two shots clear of his countryman, Ross McGowan. With another three shots back to McIlroy in joint-third, a second Harry Vardon Trophy is tantalisingly in focus. Westwood can even afford to finish runner-up as long as the 20-year-old is behind him.

Yet all week Westwood has maintained all he cares about is winning the £700,000 on offer for the tournament. Do that and the £900,000 Race To Dubai bonus will bank itself.

He is plainly expecting it all this evening and was unashamed in admitting so. "I would not be outwardly cocky, but I am just being more confident," said Westwood, who topped the Order of Merit way back in 2000. "I've had 30 wins and I think I've finished tournaments off more than anybody else on the leaderboard. This is as good as I feel like I've swung it almost all year and when I was winning a lot – in the last century – I had this kind of attitude. I don't mind putting myself up there to be shot at. You back your ability."

It was inevitable his mood would be in direct contrast to McIlroy's, the Ulsterman whose £115,000 lead in the money list has looked flimsier by the round. His afternoon had promised so much more than a 69. Indeed, when he rolled in a 30-footer on the 15th for his sixth birdie of the day he had drawn level with Westwood. But then, a minute or so later, Westwood birdied the 14th and then the wheels came off the young fellow's bandwagon in dramatic fashion.

First McIlroy was fortunate not to see his ball wet on the 16th after overshooting the green. It held on the very edge of the hazard and he was forced to remove a shoe, a sock and roll up a trouser leg to play the pitch. The resulting bogey was the best he could expect. Soon he was marking down a four on the par-three 17th. This time it was a three-putt and he was visibly shaken. There followed his worst shot of the week.

It was a simple enough 140-yard approach to the last green. McIlroy pulled it in the creek running down the hole. In many ways he was lucky to be able to drop it so close to the green. It allowed him to escape with a six, although he was clearly not thanking the heavens, particularly after Westwood had birdied the 18th. "I got myself in the position I wanted to be in, but after that finish I've left myself an uphill task," he said. "On 16 I got a flyer, on 17 I left myself a tricky two-putt and the last was just a bad shot."

He appreciates that there can be no such charge-sheet if he is to have a chance to triumph today. "I feel a low round is in me and I feel it's necessary," he said. "I've still got a shot to win this." What will fuel any lingering optimism is his recent Sunday performances. McIlroy's last five rounds have been: 64, 69, 66, 63, 64.

McGowan could also play a part in overhauling the dominant pacesetter. The 27-year-old from Essex was so impressive in matching Westwood's 66 and for him the prospects truly are giddying. If he can prevail today he would more than double his season's earnings. Forget the recession hitting Dubai hard. Everywhere here the incentives are written in noughts.