Mike Lorenzo-Vera saw his lead in the DP World Tour Championship wiped out by Jon Rahm, who could be on the verge of landing the Race to Dubai. Ben Coley reports.
-15 Rahm, Lorenzo-Vera
Day three report
All week at the DP World Tour Championship, Mike Lorenzo-Vera has simultaneously held the rare position of leader and underdog. Under the weather and without a single European Tour win to his name, the Frenchman has looked a sitting duck ever since opening with a fine round of 63, but he's yet to be passed.
In Saturday's third round, the Frenchman made light work of an easier course set up, reaching four-under for the day and 16-under for the tournament, until bogeying the 18th hole for the second day running. Friday night's mistake cut a shot off his advantage; Saturday's saw it disappear altogether.
Now, surely, the game is up. Lorenzo-Vera has been joined in the lead by Jon Rahm, seeking his second victory in the event and, with it, a first Race to Dubai. Only by finishing second to him can Bernd Wiesberger keep hold of his year-long lead should Rahm triumph, but he's 13 shots away from that target and can only sit, watch, and hope that the unlikelier leader does him a turn.
Wiesberger's real hope, however, lies with Rory McIlroy. Recovering from a second-round 74 to shoot a best-of-the-day 65, McIlroy is two adrift and there's no more dangerous predator in the sport. As significant as Lorenzo-Vera's closing bogey felt, McIlroy's par save after finding water might be the shot which precedes a hat-trick of victories here in Dubai, for all that the Race to Dubai is already lost.
Nothing went right for McIlroy on Friday, but here everything did. Two birdies to begin, a dream eagle at the seventh, a bonus at the eighth and straightforward conversions at holes 14 and 16 were enough to move him into position, and when his approach to the last found a greenside stream, he dusted himself down and salvaged par.
It's possible that McIlroy is as good now as he was in 2014 or 2015, when dominant in the sport. Certainly, his mind is clear and his short-game is proving a reliable fallback on the rare occasions those long-range bullets go astray. He's looking for his third win since The Open and, should he get it, will begin 2020 poised to return to the top of the world rankings.
But Rahm is favourite, his seven-birdie 66 securing a share of the lead, and it's fanciful to suggest his mind will wander from winning the event. Rapidly, he's become one of the world's most impressive and least fearless players, and the prospect of being the European Tour's leading golfer won't bother him a jot. With 51 of the 54 holes so far played in par or better, he's unlikely to give much away in the final round.
Many will expect and I daresay hope for the dream denouement in Dubai: that is, McIlroy versus Rahm down the stretch, the title on the line for both and perhaps the Race to Dubai's destination still unclear. For Lorenzo-Vera to have a say in all that, and perhaps even win his first title at this level in by far its most lucrative event, he'll need to play the front-nine well. So far this week, nobody has played it better.
Perhaps, then, Wiesberger has two dogs in this fight. Whether either can get their teeth stuck into Rahm, we'll have to find out.
Day two report
For much of the second round of the DP World Tour Championship, the bafflement on Rory McIlroy's face was felt across the sport. How, in the event with the biggest winners' cheque in European Tour history, on a bruisingly long course, was this happening?
'This' was France's Mike Lorenzo-Vera leading by six shots, as he did when playing his approach to the 15th hole. Lorenzo-Vera might be one of the circuit's most popular players, but he certainly isn't its longest and, 15 years a professional, he's yet to join its winners' club.
To do so here, with $3million at stake and against all of Europe's best players, would be staggering. And yet to watch him on Friday was to understand his route to the title: Lorenzo-Vera played beautifully, refusing to engage McIlroy in a gunfight, missing in the right spots and putting well.
How, then, did a six-shot lead become three? First, he three-putted the 15th green from long range and then, despite good pars at the tougher 16th and 17th holes, he again three-putted the last for another bogey.
Yet if the 34-year-old from Bayonne was frustrated at how things finished, having authored a perfect start, he didn't show it. Rather, he was visibly proud to have bettered McIlroy - and by five shots, no less - on a day of struggle for the Northern Irishman.
"I'm very pleased, managed to hit the ball where I wanted, more or less," said Lorenzo-Vera, who arrived nursing a lung infection which had played a part in Sunday's round of 80 in South Africa.
"Lungs are good now, just the energy is down, totally," he confirmed. "I'll be trying to sleep as good as I can and recover."
With McIlroy falling to fifth, Friday's 74 fully 10 shots more than the day before, Race to Dubai hopefuls Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm sit poised to capitalise on the leader's likely nerves.
Both stumbled early, but Fleetwood was four-under from the seventh to the clubhouse in a round of 68, a score bettered only by fifth-placed Christiaan Bezuidenhout, while Rahm picked up five shots over the closing five holes to set out his stall.
The Spaniard arrived in Dubai off a seven-week break, a large chunk of which he spent doing anything but play golf, and perhaps that residual rust explains a sloppy bogey at the third and a sloppier double at the eighth.
Still, the way he rallied, culminating in an eagle at the last, suggests the best is yet to come from the 2017 champion, who will win the Race to Dubai if he wins this tournament and Bernd Wiesberger is not second - as would Fleetwood.
Stopping both will be monumentally difficult for a player like Lorenzo-Vera, who can neither overpower the Earth Course nor call upon relevant experience. This is new ground for an old hand in a young man's game, and the timid putt with which his second-round 69 came to an end will have his followers cowering behind the canapé.
And yet this does remain sport, the most volatile of them in fact, and Friday saw Lorenzo-Vera outplay and outscore a four-time major champion. Why not do it again, and again, and win at long last?
"I know what I have to do," said the leader, if not with confidence then at least with clarity.
The trouble is, so do the others.
Day one report
Rory McIlroy continued his post-Open tear with an opening 64 to lie second after round one of the DP World Tour Championship.
Since that spectacular failure at Portrush in July, McIlroy has won twice and collected a $10m FedEx Cup bonus, and on Thursday's showing more silverware awaits.
Victory here can neither take him back to the top of the world rankings nor secure the Race to Dubai, but it's becoming hard to argue against McIlroy being the game's best player in the week which saw Brooks Koepka pull out of the Presidents Cup.
McIlroy is at one with the Earth Course in Dubai, where he'd already made seven birdies and just one bogey before overpowering the par-five 18th, a gorgeous three-wood to five feet setting up a closing eagle.
Earlier, Mike Lorenzo-Vera had defied illness to shoot 63, but how long his lead lasts on Friday remains to be seen.
The Frenchman is yet to win on the European Tour, and it's McIlroy who is clearly the man to beat in pursuit of the biggest winner's cheque in its history.
Not that this was all about McIlroy.
Tommy Fleetwood began the tournament with a hole-out eagle, taking his tally to four in 11 holes having dazzled at Sun City last Sunday to end a lengthy wait for silverware.
A stuttering back-nine saw Fleetwood shoot 65, a number bettered by Jon Rahm as he reached six-under on his return from a seven-week break.
Rahm and Fleetwood are right in the hunt for Race to Dubai honours, two of the five remaining contenders in the season-long battle, and much may depend on whether McIlroy keeps either of them from lifting this title.
The current leader is Bernd Wiesberger, who rallied from over-par through 10 holes to shoot a two-under 70, one better than Matthew Fitzpatrick - for whom only victory here will do.
Shane Lowry is the other in the mix but an opening 73 left him with much to do as the man he overshadowed at Portrush threatened to do likewise here in Dubai.
"It was great - I started off fast, basically did what I told you I should do starting off," McIlroy said.
"I birdied the two par-fives on the front nine and did what I needed to do. It was nice to finish the way I did, I hit a lot of quality shots coming in."
Referring to the way he finished, McIlroy added: "It's possibly the best shot I've hit all year.
"I had 272 to the front, 291 to the pin; the wind was off the left so it was a nice one for me.
"I just flushed it. As soon as I hit it I knew it was perfect - it was right out of the middle."