Four-time Major Champion McIlroy started the day eight strokes off the pace but carded a six under par 66 to post an early clubhouse target of 11 under par at The K Club, the same venue where he claimed a famous Irish Open victory in 2016.
Long, of Germany, carded a two under par round of 70 on the Palmer North Course at the 2006 Ryder Cup venue, with a birdie at the last taking him to 13 under par, one stroke ahead of England’s Jordan Smith, who also birdied the 18th to sign for a one over par 73.
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McIlroy will go in search of a third victory on the 2023 Race to Dubai, with Long seeking a maiden title and Smith hunting a third DP World Tour crown, following on from his win at last year’s Portugal Masters.
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Three-time DP World Tour winner Ryan Fox matched McIlroy’s six under par 66 to move into a share of fourth place. The Kiwi was joined on ten under par by Frenchman Julien Brun, the Scottish pair of Grant Forrest and Calum Hill, England’s Ross Fisher and Shubhankar Sharma of India.
Hurly Long: “Just a solid round. I feel like I managed my ball nicely. Nothing heroic, but I think the key out here is just to strategic where you placed the ball and I did a good job of that today. Overall I’m happy with the round.
“I know (Rory’s) going to be nervous, but it’s exciting… Last year at The Belfry, I was leading after two rounds, and there were ginormous crowds out there as well. I know I can take something from that. I’ve got a good attitude. I know it’s going to be way more difficult tomorrow than it was even today, but you can feed off of that just as well. So just looking forward to it either way.”
Jordan Smith: “It’s completely different to the first few days, wasn’t it. If you were to say I would be one behind going into the final round, I would have taken it. I’m in a great position and yeah, looking forward to tomorrow.
“It’s going to be good fun playing with Rory. But I mean, I’ve just got to stick to my own game. Ball-striking is fine. Just a few unlucky breaks today. Yeah, I look forward to it. It will be great. The crowds will be great. It will be loud and just hopefully the weather sticks.”
Rory McIlroy: “I knew I needed to put the ball in the fairway a bit more off the tee which I did for the most part, and I played the par fives well, apart from 16, and just gave myself plenty of looks. Held some nice putts on the back nine and really pleased to bounce back on 17 and 18 with two birdies after the bogey on 16.
“I felt like I maybe needed to go a couple lower to get myself right in it, but the guys at the top haven’t really went away from the field that much today. Excited to put myself right there and have a chance tomorrow.”