RORY MCILROY FELL foul of the rulebook in an unexpected setback at the HSBC Golf Championship.
The world number six fired four more birdies as he continued his blistering start to the season in Abu Dhabi.
But in a late twist, he was hit with a two-shot penalty for an incorrect drop before he signed his card.
The infraction on the second hole moved McIlroy from 11-under-par to nine-under, three shots behind Scotland’s Craig Lee who is chasing his maiden Tour win.
Phil Mickelson leads the pack after a superb 63 on Saturday left him level with India’s Gaganjeet Bhullar on 10-under.
“Rory’s ball came to rest in a marked gallery crosswalk to the left of the second fairway from which relief is available under the rules, as if it’s a piece of ground under repair,” European Tour chief referee John Paramor explained.
He found what he thought to be his nearest point of relief where the ball was outside and when he dropped the ball within a club’s length, when he actually stood to the ball, his left foot was standing on or just over the line demarking the area of ground under repair which is treated as part of the ground under repair.
Therefore he has not taken full relief and he is in breach of the Rule 25/1, the penalty for which is two strokes.
The penalty was McIlroy’s only dropped shots of the round — and only his second bogey of the week — as he continued his return to form in his first tournament of 2014.
A birdie on the par-four third was followed by back-to-back birdies on seven and eight.
A five-foot birdie at the last appeared to have given him the clubhouse lead on 11-under before the rules controversy struck.
Michael Hoey remains in contention himself after a third round of 68 left him four shots adrift on eight-under.
Paul McGinley is the best of the other Irish contenders to make the cut following a level par 72 to remain on four-under.