Rory McIlroy sank two big putts down the stretch to remain tied with Luke Donald atop the leaderboard, as the world's two top-ranked golfers pulled three shots clear of the star-studded field going into the final round of the Dubai World Championship.
The top-ranked McIlroy, who has already wrapped up the European and PGA Tour money titles, struggled early when he bogeyed the first hole and missed several makeable birdie putts. But he improved on the back nine, sinking a 30-foot eagle putt on 14 and closing out with a short birdie putt on 18 for a 6-under 66. Donald also had a 66 and is tied with McIlory with a 17-under total of 199.
"I've done a majority of my scoring this week on the back nine and that's the way it went today," McIlroy said. "Took me a few holes to adjust. But once I got comfortable, I started to hit some good shots and give myself opportunities for birdies."
Donald had his third consecutive bogey-free round and has now gone 100 holes at the Dubai tournament without a bogey. If he wins without carding a bogey, he will match the feat of Sweden's Jesper Parnevik who won the 1995 Scandinavian Masters without dropping a shot.
"I was, again, just trying to play solid golf, minimise mistakes," said Donald, who won in Japan last week to overtake Tiger Woods for the No 2 spot in the rankings. "I guess it's a testament to how I play the game. I kind of keep the ball in front of me and, when I get in trouble, I've got a good short game to bail myself out."
South Africans Louis Oosthuizen (68) and Charl Schwartzel (67) are three shots back, while their compatriot Branden Grace and Joostis Luiten of France are a further two shots behind. Seven others are six shots off the pace, including Scotsman Marc Warren who started the day tied with McIlroy and Donald but had three bogeys on his first 12 holes to fall back.
The round of the day, however, went to Jeev Milkha Singh. Still recovering from a hand injury and worried about his mother who was hospitalised after a fall, the Indian golfer shot an 8-under 64 to match the course record and move into a tie for 25th. He strung together three consecutive birdies on the front nine and four straight on the back in a round that included a total of nine birdies to go with a lone bogey on the 10th.
"I dedicate this round to my mother," Singh said. "She was in the ICU yesterday. I learned about it just before I teed off."
Though McIlroy and Donald didn't play together, it seemed the world's top golfers were having a duel of sorts all day.
Donald struck first, sinking two birdie putts on the first three holes while McIlroy hit his opening drive into a bunker and settled for a bogey. McIlroy pulled a shot back with a birdie on 3 and then sank a 25-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole before Donald sank birdies on 7 and 9 to extend his lead. But just when it seemed Donald might pull away, McIlroy made consecutive birdies on 11 and 12. With Donald extending his lead by two with a 20-foot birdie putt on 14, McIlroy needed something special to keep pace.
On the par-5 14th, McIlroy hit what he called a "great drive" followed by a 4-iron that landed in the middle of the green. He curled the 30-foot putt to draw even with Donald.
"I was just trying to hit it on the green somewhere and give myself at least a chance for eagle and probably a two-putt birdie," McIlroy said. "But I got up there and it was 25, 30 feet away and I guess it was a downhill putt that I was just trying to get close. It was on a good line and it was a good speed and it was a bonus that it went in. Obviously, it got me tied which was nice."
Donald and McIlroy were not alone at the top all day. 2010 British Open winner Oosthuizen made a run midway with four birdies in five holes before cooling off and three-putting for par on 18. His playing partner, 2011 Masters champion Schwartzel, also started strong with two birdies on the first three holes and had the shot of the day when his second on the par-5 7th almost went in. But then he fell back with a bogey on 8 and 10 and missed a birdie putt on 18.
"Nearly albatross there wasn't it," Schwartzel said. "If there was ever going to be a flag that you've got a good chance to eagle, it was going to be the 7th today. Great tee shot, hit a 4-iron in there and caught that bowl and came funneling down. From where I could see it, it must have been really close to going in."
Donald and then McIlroy birdied the 18th to set up a season-ending duel between No 1 and No 2 - something not seen since last year when Donald won the BMW PGA Championship in a playoff with Lee Westwood to replace him at the top. Though the Northern Irishman has the top ranking locked up, a victory would affirm his claim to be the world's best golfer heading into 2013.
"It's very important no matter what happens tomorrow," McIlroy said. "I guess I'm No 1 going into next year. But it will be nice to put an exclamation mark on, if you want."
For Donald, a victory would be revenge of sorts. McIlroy took the No. 1 ranking from him earlier this year and then went out and matched the Englishman's 2011 feat of winning both tour money titles. The two haven't played in a final round together since 2007 and that was when Donald was ranked 17th and McIlroy 233rd.
"In terms of my own confidence, it would be a great way to finish off the year," Donald said. "Any time you're playing against the best player in the world, if you can go head-to-head and come out on top, yeah you're going to come away feeling good about things."