Li Haotong leads at the Dubai Desert Classic. Photo: Xinhua

DUBAI China's Li Haotong displayed his superstar potential as he outscored Rory McIlroy by four shots in the third round to take a one-shot lead into the final day of the $3 million Dubai Desert Classic.

Starting his third round on Saturday trailing leader McIlroy by three shots, the 22-year-old Li put together a superb round of eight-under-par 64 to finish on 20-under after 54 holes.

Four-time major champion McIlroy came back to the course early in the morning to complete his second round and made five birdies in seven holes.

However, he could not get going in the third round and found himself one-over at the turn. But a much better back nine gave him a third-round 68 and three-day tally of 19-under 197.

Frenchman Alex Levy had a hole in one at the fourth en route to a 65, and he is tied third at 17 under par with South African youngster Haydn Porteous, who also shot 65. 

England's Andy Sullivan made a big move with a 63 to rise to fifth place at 200.

Li made four birdies on either half of the golf course and never looked in trouble because of his impressive ball-striking. Even when he was not hitting it close, his short game saved him on a couple of occasions, including a good up-and-down on the 14th hole.

"Played really solid. Especially had a couple up-and-downs and was quite happy to shoot eight-under on this course," said Li, who will become the first male Chinese player to crack the top 50 in the world rankings if he goes on to win.

"I just wanted to play by myself and play my game. I thought if I just stayed patient, I will play good. So just did that all day."

McIlroy, winner of the tournament in 2009 and 2015, is looking to become the second three-time champion here after Ernie Els.

A couple of loose drives resulted in a par on the par-5 third hole and a bogey on the par-4 eighth, and there was another dropped shot on the par-3 fourth hole.

But the world number 11, who made a comeback to competitive golf after more than 100 days out last week in Abu Dhabi, fought back on the back nine.

"Hopefully that's the bad one out of the way. I didn't get off to too bad a start, just a couple of loose ones. Missed a short one on the fourth and made bogey on eighth," said McIlroy.

"That wasn't too good. But to come back with a 5-under back nine was good. It was good to knock that birdie in at the last and stay within one of Li.

"I'll probably need to play a bit better tomorrow to win, but you know, it's two weeks into the season and I've given myself a second chance to win a tournament. Looking forward to tomorrow."

Levy aced the par-3 fourth hole and made five consecutive birdies from the ninth hole in his 65, while Porteous closed with three birdies in his last three holes.

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