While most of the U.S. was asleep, or still out, the two biggest non-Tiger stars in golf were making notable pushes to the top of the leaderboard in Abu Dhabi. Rory McIlroy was on pace for a second straight round in the 60s, and a spot in the Sunday final pairing, while Phil Mickelson finally got rolling and rocketed up the leaderboard with a dazzling round of 63 (the closest was a 66).
But perhaps the most newsworthy item of the eventful round came after the players were off the course, as it didn't take long for another rules controversy to bubble up in the new year. (Yesterday, we had Sergio Garcia denying cheating allegations.) McIlroy finished up and was proceeding to the scoring area to sign his card for a round of 68, good enough to put him alone at 11-under in second one shot back of leader Craig Lee. But then the caddie of his playing partner, Ricardo Gonzalez, alerted him to a potential penalty on a drop back at the second hole. If he had signed his card before review, and the drop was determined illegal, McIlroy would, of course, be disqualified.
So the Northern Irishman enlisted the help of Euro Tour rules chief John Paramor to take a look at a drop McIlroy made to get relief from a tamped-down pathway on the second hole. After taking a look, McIlroy was dinged two strokes for not taking full RELIEF from the pathway, or "ground under repair." It's a pretty stupid penalty, particularly given that Rory didn't gain any advantage, but rather disadvantaged himself with the drop he incorrectly made. Here's the explanation from Paramor (via EuropeanTour.com):
"Rory's ball came to rest in a marked gallery crosswalk to the left of the second fairway from which relief is available under the rules, as if it's a piece of ground under repair. He found what he thought to be his nearest point of relief where the ball was outside and when he dropped the ball within a club's length, when he actually stood to the ball, his left foot was standing on or just over the line demarking the area of ground under repair which is treated as part of the ground under repair. Therefore he has not taken full relief and he is in breach of the Rule 25/1, the penalty for which is two strokes."
Rory is still right in the mix, but the penalty certainly put a damper on his third straight day of solid play in the Middle East. As you would imagine, he was not pleased with the violation and ruling (via Jason Sobel/GolfChannel.com)
"There are some stupid rules in golf, and this is one of them."
Now at 9-under, he's three shots off the lead and will likely need another round in the 60s to start his year off in the winner's circle.
One shot ahead of Rory, miraculously, is Phil Mickelson. After two days of hitting it all over the place, Mickelson fired a 9-under round of 63 to come from nowhere into a tie for second place. The 63 even came with two bogeys, as it was the vintage Phil round of unpredictability on almost every hole. Mickelson had struggled getting the ball in the fairway with his new Callaway Big Bertha on Thursday, and middled around hitting fairway metals off the tee on Friday with a 2-under 70.
But he put it all together on Saturday when he played more than four hours ahead of the leading final groups and well before the eastern U.S. was up and awake. He needed just 22 putts in the third round, and when Phil gets hot with the putter, a number in the low 60s is imminent. The round of nine birdies and an eagle could end up being his lowest of the year, but for a guy who made a run at 59 on two separate occasions in 2013, I doubt it.
Here's the leaderboard heading into Sunday's final round. Euro Tour officials have to he ecstatic now that Mickelson, a prize catch for this event, is right there with Rory:
|Place||Player||Score||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3|
|T6||JIMÉNEZ, Miguel Angel||-8||73||68||67|
|T46||VAN DER WALT, Dawie*||-1||68||73||74|
|T53||DE LA RIVA, Eduardo*||Par||70||74||72|
|T60||OLAZÁBAL, José María*||1||74||70||73|
|T67||SINGH, Jeev Milkha*||2||69||75||74|
|T70||CARLSSON, Magnus A*||3||71||71||77|