Out of the running for the Race to Dubai title, Rory McIlroy still forced his way onto center stage at the season-ending World Tour Championship on Thursday by producing one of his greatest shots of the year.
McIlroy flushed a 3-wood from 291 yards with his second shot at the par-5 18th hole on the Earth Course, the ball settling five feet from the cup. He rolled in the eagle putt for an 8-under 64, leaving the second-ranked McIlroy a stroke off the lead held by ailing Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was perfect,” the four-time major champion said, adding it was “possibly the best shot I've hit all year.”
It was McIlroy’s best round at an event he won in 2012 and 2015. Even if he makes it three victories in eight years in Dubai, it still won’t be enough for him to be crowned Europe’s No. 1 player.
Five players are still in contention for that honor, and Jon Rahm made the best start of the quintet by shooting a bogey-free, 6-under 66 to move into third place, three strokes behind Lorenzo-Vera.
Rahm last played competitively in early October at the Open de Espana — a tournament he won by five shots — and said he barely touched a club for five of the past six weeks he took off in the longest break of his career.
“I could tell how rested I was mentally because on some holes I never lost patience, I never really got down on myself and stayed with that positive attitude,” said Rahm, who is known for his fiery temperament on the course. “I'm hoping I can keep playing solid and keep it for the next three days.
“It was hard to get into that routine again but once I came to the tournament, you kind of switch, you get to the tournament, you get to grinding.”
Rahm needs a win this week to stand a chance of taking the Race to Dubai title for the first time. As does Tommy Fleetwood, who was happy with his start, too.
Fleetwood, winner of the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa last week, began his round by holing out from 153 yards for eagle on No. 1 and shot 67 for a tie for fourth place.
“You can only put yourself out of it on day one,” said Fleetwood, who is second in the Race to Dubai standings and is looking to capture the title for the second time in three years. “There's a lot more to do. There’s 54 holes now. There are great players up there and all I can do is do my stuff. I've got three days of work left really until the end of the year. Just make the most of them.”
Of the other Race to Dubai contenders, Bernd Wiesberger shot 70 and was tied for 14th place, Matt Fitzpatrick shot 71, and Shane Lowry shot 73.
Wiesberger leads the race and will lift the trophy if he wins in Dubai or finishes alone in second place.
“I'm just thinking 72-hole tournament this week. I'm not trying to look at what is happening,” said Wiesberger, who has won three tournaments this year in a strong return from seven months out with a wrist injury. “I can't control what Tommy, Matt, Shane and Jon are doing.”
Fleetwood knows a win, coupled with Wiesberger finishing lower than outright second, will be enough to be Europe’s No. 1 again. The same scenario faces third-place Rahm, who won the World Tour Championship in 2017 and placed fourth last year.
Lorenzo-Vera finished with four straight birdies to tie his lowest round of the season, even though he said he was feeling “under the weather” because of a lung infection he caught in South Africa last week.
“Honestly I'm not the feeling well at all,” said the Frenchman, who led by three shots before McIlroy’s late eagle. “I have no energy. I was down ... Just one of those days where you try to put the ball in play.”