By Simon Lewis
Rory McIlroy has 21 holes of golf to negotiate before realising his ambition to be crowned Dubai Duty Free Irish Open champion after play was suspended at the K Club with his third round still to finish.
World number three McIlroy has a three-shot lead over the field having produced some near flawless golf on a day hit by two lengthy delays due to the threat of lightning and a final suspension at 8:29pm tonight due to poor light.
He will know, however, that the man leading the chase is Masters champion Danny Willett, the previous night's co-leader, who despite dropping two shots on his round with three holes to play in the group behind McIlroy, knows all about cutting into sizeable leads.
It was only last month that the Englishman reeled in Jordan Spieth's four-shot 54-hole lead and then withstood the defending champion's rally after the American quadrupled bogeyed the par-three 12th at Augusta National to claim the Green Jacket.
Still, McIlroy earned a good night's sleep at the K Club after a disrupted day and ahead of his final three holes in the third round when play resumes at 7:30am on Sunday.
Starting a shot behind Willett and Scotland's Marc Warren, the leaders were hit by heavy showers throughout the afternoon with play suspended due to the threat of lightning, first at 3:27pm for two hours and 18 minutes and again at 6:24, play resuming at 7:55 before it was called for the final time 36 minutes later.
McIlroy reached nine under after taking advantage of the par-fives, with birdies at the fourth and 10th, and with two more to come at 16 and 18 in Sunday morning he has the capacity to put daylight between himself and the field, Willett set to restart at six under with Scotland's Russell Knox in the clubhouse on five under following a 70.
“It was unfortunate that we couldn’t get finished but hopefully we can come back in the morning weather permitting and finish it off and get a clear run of golf in the afternoon,” McIlroy said.
“It was just getting a little touch and go with the light there so they made a good decision.”
McIlroy was speaking from experience, as he had missed a 15 foot birdie putt at the 15th having complained he had struggled to read the line. The tournament host, though, has a tee shot at the 16th to look forward to in the morning.
“It’s nice, especially with the tee up. Hopefully conditions are a little better. Two par fives with three holes to play — hopefully I can take advantage of those and get a couple of birdies. (My game) it's feeling good.”
Three birdies in a row on his front nine had set up Spain's Rafa Cabrera Bello for an early charge into contention that he continued with two further birdies around the turn to get to six under, two off McIlroy's mid-round lead. It all came undone at the dangerous par-four 17th, where a double bogey and bogey at the last took the shine of Cabrera Bello's day, sending him back to three under.
Shane Lowry was the next best Irishman after McIlroy, his 71 leaving him at one over par.
The 2009 champion had hoped to be gunning for glory in tomorrow's final round but will instead aim for a top-10 finish, ahead of the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship next week at Wentworth.
A three-over-par 75 at the K Club on Friday had got Lowry into the weekend on the cutline at two over, and he had been looking for a stellar early round in the best of Saturday's conditions to give the front runners something to think about.
Yet while he returned to under-par scoring with a 71, Lowry could not make an impression on the leaderboard.
“I thought if I got to three-under today, five-under, you're not asking for that much,” Lowry said. “The conditions we had were fairly okay. A couple of tricky pins out there. So wasn't all that easy. But yeah, I mean, I definitely should have shot maybe one or two better today. But that's the way it is.
“I know there's a 64 or 65 out there for me. Just need to get out there and give myself a bit of confidence for next week. Not that far behind. I can still sneak a Top-10 out of this weekend. I can still get myself a good week out of this week. It's not over yet.”
Of the other seven Irishmen who made the cut, European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke led a trio on two over par following a 74, the same as West Waterford's Gary Hurley whose fellow countyman Kevin Phelan shot a 73.
Graeme McDowell had a day to forget with a four-over 76 to slip to three over par and that wasn't the half of it as his Twitter followers discovered.
Having posted his third-round card, McDowell took to the social media sight to tweet: “Day began with dead phone, dropped it down the toilet an hour later, 3 putts everywhere, then helped a waiter spill tray of champagne #myday.”
Gavin Moynihan followed suit with a 76 to fall to three over and there was worse still from Paul Dunne, whose 77 saw him drop to six over while an 80 sent Paul McGinley, struggling with back issues, tumbling down the leaderboard at seven over.