Willett leads Dubai Desert Classic; late McIlroy charge

Danny Willett of England tees off on the 1st hole during 3rd round of the Dubai Desert Classic in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP)

Danny Willett underlined his growing stature in European golf when a second consecutive round of seven-under par 65 at the Emirates Golf Club on Saturday gave him sole possession of the lead going into the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic.

The Englishman broke though a tight leaderboard with a superb eagle on the par-5 13th hole and ended the day one shot ahead of Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello on 16-under par 200.

Rory McIlroy stayed in contention to retain his title with a late surge.

The world number two conjured up six birdies over the closing holes to finish on eight under par, eight strokes behind Willett and seven adrift of Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello.

Briton Andy Sullivan was a shot back in third, one ahead of Dutchman Joost Luiten.

Willett, runner-up to McIlroy in last season's Race to Dubai, fired a second successive 65 at Emirates Golf Club to move to 16 under par, sinking a superb 30-foot eagle putt at the 13th.

"I kept the ball under fantastic control with some crosswinds, did everything right really. A couple of hiccups in there today where it could have been a little different and kept the head on and kept moving forward," the 28-year-old told the European Tour website.

"I think mentally I feel like I'm very much in control of myself, which obviously helps."

A double-bogey on the ninth looked to have ended McIlroy's victory hopes but the Northern Irishman birdied three of his last four holes for a 68 that give him an outside chance of winning the tournament for the third time.

Three time Dubai Desert Classic champion Ernie Els, who started the day one shot behind overnight leader Cabrera-Bello, struggled all day and for the first time in the history of the tournament, he posted an over-par third-round score of 74.

Willett, who saw his ball miraculously bounce out of water on the opening day, needed no such luck on Saturday.

He hit the ball well, making 14 greens in regulation, but putted even better, needing just 26 putts to complete the round.

The highlight of the round was the eagle three on the 13th hole, where he drained a curling 40-footer putt. That came moments after he had made his only bogey of the last two rounds on the 12th hole.

Willett was delighted with his form and said: "We came off the first obviously bogey in two days on 12, which was playing pretty tricky today.

"So, come off a silly five there and two five-woods, a little bit of a different story to Thursday when we bounced off the rocks. Today, I hit a good one and saw a pretty good line straightaway.

"Played some great golf yesterday and today. Kept the ball under fantastic control with some crosswinds, hit it in there close.

"Did everything right really. A couple hiccups in there today where it could have been a little different, but kept the head on and kept moving forward."

McIlroy felt the front nine had killed his chances this week. In the last two rounds, he is five-over par for the front nine, and nine-under par for the back.

"I just think I haven't quite figured out the front nine yet. Obviously, I've played the back nine much better," said the two-time Dubai Desert Classic champion.

"There is more chances on the back nine and more opportunities for birdies, but you know, there's no reason why I shouldn't be playing better golf on the front nine.

"That's really what's cost me this week. I might be just a few shots too far back to make that up tomorrow.

"It's going to be a long shot. I came back from seven shots behind at Wentworth (2014), so it's not out of the realms of possibility, but this is a great field."

Select third-round scores:

200 - Danny Willett (ENG) 70-65-65
201 - Rafael Cabrera-Bello (ESP) 67-67-67
202 - Andy Sullivan (ENG) 70-66-66,
203 - Joost Luiten (NED) 69-67-67
204 - Hadyn Porteus (RSA) 72-66-66,
205 - Scott Hend (AUS) 71-68-66, Chris Wood (ENG) 68-68-69
206 - Soren Kjeldsen (DEN) 70-70-66, Nathan Holman (AUS) 69-70-67, Brett Rumford (AUS) 67-70-69, Thorbjorn Olesen (DEN) 72-64-70
207 - Joachim B Hansen (SWE) 72-71-64, Mikko Ilonen (FIN) 70-70-67, Bryson DeChambeau (USA) 70-69-68, Byeong-hun An (KOR) 71-67-69, Graeme Storm (ENG) 68-70-69, Richard Bland (ENG) 69-69-69, Henrik Stenson (SWE) 69-68-70, Alvaro Quiros (ESP) 68-69-70, Trevor Fisher Jnr (RSA) 67-68-72
208 - Roope Kakko (FIN) 72-69-67, Alejandro Canizares (ESP) 71-69-68, Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 70-70-68, Rory McIlroy (NIR) 68-72-68, Bradley Dredge (WAL) 70-70-68, Bernd Wiesberger (AUT) 68-71-69, Johan Carlsson (SWE) 71-67-70
209 - Nicholas Colsaerts (BEL) 73-70-66, Gregory Bourdy (FRA) 72-71-66, George Coetzee (RSA) 72-70-67, Gregory Havret (FRA) 71-70-68, Ross Fisher (ENG) 70-71-68, Ben Evans (ENG) 69-71-69, James Morrison (ENG) 69-70-70, Gary Stal (FRA) 70-68-71, Ernie Els (RSA) 68-67-74

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