DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Rory McIlroy delivered an exhibition of short iron play to shoot 7-under 65 in his third round and build a three-stroke lead at the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday.
The top-ranked McIlroy made eight birdies at Emirates Golf Club -- four in a row from No. 1, three straight from No. 13, and another at No. 17 -- and none of the birdie putts were from more than 7 feet.
"I drove the ball better today, which put me in better positions to attack and make birdies," said the Northern Irishman, making his first start of 2023. "It's nearly there, not quite there. I'm just playing really efficient golf right now."
McIlroy did, though, give the chasers some hope by making bogey at the par-5 No. 18, for his only dropped shot of the round, after hitting a fairway wood from around 250 yards into the water in front of the green. After missing a par putt from 8 feet, McIlroy had a look of disappointment across his face as he walked off the green, despite holding a commanding lead.
The four-time major champion made the same mistake on the 18th hole in his final round in last year's tournament to finish a shot behind the leaders, when a birdie would have won him the title.
"I love this golf course, this tournament. I have won here a couple of times ... but I don't think I've won on my first start (of a year)," he said. "I've given myself an opportunity to try to do something I've never done before."
McIlroy was on 15 under overall, with English players Callum Shinkwin (67) and No. 484-ranked Dan Bradbury (68) tied for second place at 12 under.
Seven players sit in a tie for fourth at 11-under par, a group that includes France's Victor Perez (66), the winner last week at the equally prestigious Abu Dhabi Championship.
Spanish player Adri Arnaus briefly held the lead on 13 under after eight holes of his round, but he fell away after bogeying No. 9 and making double-bogey at the par-5 13th. Arnaus is one of those at 11 under.
The tournament is finishing on Monday after bad weather cut short play on the opening two days.