Eagle finish by McIlroy in Dubai
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McIlroy was level par after 15 holes of his second round and just one under for the tournament before making birdies on the 16th and 17th and a brilliant eagle on the par-five 18th.
The resulting 68 left the world number one five under par and seven shots behind joint leaders Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton, who both shot 67 following opening 65s.
A third victory at Jumeirah Golf Estates would see Fitzpatrick finish top of the DP World Tour rankings unless McIlroy is second, while second place for Fitzpatrick would require McIlroy to be worse than seventh for the Englishman to triumph.
Asked what sparked his much-needed finish, McIlroy told Sky Sports: “I’m not sure, but whatever it was I need to bottle if for the weekend.
“Pretty much very mediocre golf for the first 33 holes and then something sort of clicked. The golf course is playing a lot different than it has in previous years, you miss fairways and you get punished heavily.
“I feel like I haven’t hit a lot of terrible shots, I’ve just missed it in the wrong spots at times and that makes it difficult to keep up with the leaders. It was nice to finish with a flourish and put myself a little closer to the guys going into the weekend.
“I think if I had finished one or two under for the tournament that seems like a tall task, a lot of shots to make up, especially with Fitz up there.
“Being at least less than 10 back seems an easier proposition. You never know, that finish could be key to something that happens over the next 36 holes.”
Hatton held a three-shot lead after starting round two with three straight birdies and picking up another shot on the fifth, but three-putted the sixth as playing partner Fitzpatrick scrambled an unlikely par after almost finding water off the tee.
The leading pair continued to trade birdies and the occasional bogey on the back nine to pull three shots clear of the chasing pack.