Dubai - Rory McIlroy struggled gamefully throughout the day in Saturday's tough third round at the Dubai Desert Classic, but by the end of it he was still ahead in a three-way tie for the lead.
The 21-year-old Ulsterman, who led by one overnight, had a nightmare start with a hat-trick of bogeys and, opposed to the Boy Wonder, it was more a case of the boy wonders.
But he gradually steadied the ship and with his main rivals for the title all finding it hard to cope with the blustery winds and firm greens, he parred the last six holes for a three over 75.
That saw him share the lead going into Sunday's finale at eight under with Anders Hansen of Denmark (71) and Thomas Aiken of South Africa (74).
"I wish I had played a little better today and given myself a bit more of an advantage, But basically there's three of us on 8-under. I think there's seven or eight guys on seven and a few on six," said McIlroy
Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia remained in contention just a stroke off the lead along with five others - Jean-Baptiste Gonnet of France, Spaniards Alvaro Quiros and Alvaro Velasco, Brett Rumford of Australia and Fredrik Andersson Hed of Sweden.
World number one Lee Westwood failed to get much going and finished the day with a 72 to stand at five over, while number two Martin Kaymer looked out of it after a 76 left him on level par.
"Might have a sniff at it. You never know," commented Westwood.
Twenty players were within three strokes of the lead setting up the prospect of a thrilling final round when the conditions were forecast to be just as testing.
The day had been billed as a showdown between tournament leader McIlroy and a charging and back-to-form Woods, but it was the 31-year-old Spaniard Garcia who stole the show early on.
Seeking a first win in more that two years, he regained his composure after an opening bogey, his first of the week, and by the turn two birdies had given him the outright lead as both McIlroy and Woods struggled in the windy conditions.
The young Irishman, the champion here two years ago, bogeyed his first three holes to surrender the lead, while the 35-year-old American, winner in 2006 and 2008, bogeyed the first two.
With Aiken, joint second overnight, hanging on, Garcia pulled three shots clear at one stage, but bogeys at the 11th and 12th brought him back to the field.
A birdie at 13 restored a two-stroke lead for the former world number two, whose ranking has slumped to 79th, but a double bogey after a wild drive on the 17th saw him card a 75 and fall back into the pack once again.
Ahead of him, Woods double-bogeyed the ninth, where he went in the water to reach the turn in a dreadful 39, but he then battled his way back with an eagle-birdie burst to open the back nine.
The former dominant world golfer hung on and again the par-five 18th came to his rescue when he sank a snaking 20-footer for birdie and a level par score to stay in contention at seven under.
"It was tough out there," Woods said.
"I got off to a tough start there and battled it back and then lost it just before the turn and battled back again and lost it again at 16 and then battled back at 18."
For Sunday's final round, Aiken and Hansen will form the final pairing with McIlroy and Velasco ahead of them, while Woods will partner Garcia in a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.
"I think if it's like what it was today, it's just a test of patience and trying to really play smart golf and make pars and make the odd birdie when you can get it," said McIlroy.
Third round scores at the Dubai Desert Classic:
Emirates Golf Club (Majlis Course, Par-72)
208 - Rory McIlroy (NIR) 65-68-75, Anders Hansen (DEN) 69-68-71, Thomas Aiken (RSA) 67-67-74
209 - Fredrik Andersson Hed (SWE) 69-71-69, Tiger Woods (USA) 71-66-72, Alvaro Quiros (ESP) 73-68-68, Jean-Baptiste Gonnet (FRA) 68-69-72, Brett Rumford (AUS) 69-68-72, Sergio Garcia (ESP) 67-67-75, Alvaro Velasco (ESP) 74-70-65
210 - Stephen Gallacher (SCO) 70-69-71, Michael Hoey (NIR) 70-67-73
211 - Hennie Otto (RSA) 72-70-69, Scott Strange (AUS) 72-72-67, Peter Hanson (SWE) 69-69-73, Lee Westwood (ENG) 69-70-72, Pablo Martin (ESP) 68-72-71, Raphael Jacquelin (FRA) 72-70-69, Maarten Lafeber (NED) 71-72-68, James Kingston (RSA) 72-72-67
212 - Paul Waring (ENG) 73-68-71, Ross Fisher (ENG) 73-69-70, Floris de Vries (NED) 71-70-71, Danny Willett (ENG) 68-71-73, Gregory Havret (FRA) 72-71-69