ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Jordan Spieth paced onto the green and marked one of the six balls on or around the putting surface in near-darkness at the Abu Dhabi Championship on Saturday.
Minutes earlier and on the same 9th hole, Rory McIlroy rummaged - in vain - through one bush, then another, on some wasteland for an errant ball belonging to his playing partner and then-tournament leader, Andy Sullivan.
It was an extraordinary end to a fog-hit, third day’s play at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
The final day promises to be just as dramatic.
Sullivan made a triple-bogey before the horn sounded to suspend play in the third round, to fall out of the lead he’d held all day and leave a five-way tie atop the leaderboard between McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter, Branden Grace and Joost Luiten. The quintet is on 10-under par.
“It’s a really bunched leaderboard,” said McIlroy, one of 60 players yet to complete their third round. “It will be a bit of a sprint to the finish.”
There are 21 players within three shots of the lead - and Spieth finally found some form to be among them.
The top-ranked American started the third round seven shots back, and finished it in the gathering gloom and in a six-ball - a career first - after barely beating the claxon on the 9th tee. Indeed, the horn sounded at the top of his backswing as he rushed to finish his round and avoid an early-morning return on Sunday.
Spieth is three shots off the lead after a 4-under 68, and in need of what he called a “crazy round” to take victory in his first regular European Tour event.
Sullivan is one of five players a shot behind, with 2012 champion Robert Rock, Henrik Stenson, Thomas Pieters and Rafael Cabrera-Bello - after his nightmare on No. 9, when he went way right off the tee. He searched for his ball in two separate bushes - McIlroy came over to lend a hand - but had to reload.
Sullivan’s second drive found the rough on the right, his approach was short, his chip onto the green poor, and he two-putted from 10 feet.
“It wasn’t great to see,” McIlroy said. “I was hoping he would have made that putt just to give him a little bit of momentum going into tomorrow.”
McIlroy chased down Sullivan in the final round of the season-ending World Tour Championship in November to clinch the Race to Dubai title. It has happened earlier this tournament - and this time, it was Sullivan who imploded.
The other member of the final group in the third round was Bryson DeChambeau, the American amateur with the self-styled nickname of “The Golf Scientist,” who plays with a set of home-made clubs that are all the same length. He started the round tied on 8-under par with McIlroy, but had dropped back to 7-under by the time play was suspended.
That group still had nine holes to play - more than any other group.
DeChambeau removed his earphones, took off his flat cap, and approached McIlroy on the practice green ahead of his first round with the four-time major winner.
“I’m Bryson, nice to meet you,” DeChambeau said. And in another display of reverence, the U.S. Amateur and NCAA champion applauded when McIlroy’s name was announced on the first tee.
DeChambeau was about to learn just how much pressure is involved in contending in a top-class field at a high-profile professional event. He drove into the bunker on No. 1, then drove into the tree on the right on No. 2 to make bogey. He appeared nervy for much of the round.
Fowler shot 68 in the second round and continued that form by picking up four shots in the 11 holes he managed in the third round. Poulter, playing with a taped-up thumb that he “took a chunk out of” on Thursday, made four birdies in five holes around the turn and was 5-under after 13 holes of his third round.
Play started nearly three hours late - for the second straight day - because of thick morning fog.
Resuming on No. 14, McIlroy made three of 15 pars in the round, before landing approach shots inside two feet on Nos. 17 and 18. He nearly holed a wedge shot on No. 17, before hitting a 5-wood from 268 yards to 18 inches on the last. He tapped in his eagle putt for a 70.
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