SHEFFIELD'S Danny Willett saw his hopes of becoming Europe's No 1 player for the season diminish as he slipped four shots behind Race to Dubai leader Rory McIlroy with a round to play in the DP World Tour Championship.
World No 3 McIlroy tightened his grip on the Order of Merit despite being frustrated by his lowest round ever in the event.
McIlroy fired eight birdies and one bogey in a third-round 65 to lie one shot behind England's Andy Sullivan but crucially four ahead of Willett, his nearest rival in the battle to be crowned European No 1.
Willett trails McIlroy by just 1,613 points in the Race to Dubai but looked to be drifting out of contention before playing his last five holes in four under par, carding birdies on the 14th and 18th and holing from 30 feet for eagle on the 15th after driving the green.
"It was a good day," Willett said after signing for a 67.
"I kept digging in and looking at the leaderboard and knowing people were shooting low scores helped give us a kick up the rear. From nowhere we gained three shots on the field and got back into the mix.
"I don't think we are going to see Rory coming backwards so we need to shoot a good round tomorrow and see what happens."
Willett's fellow Sheffielder Matt Fitzpatrick is alongside him in a tie for sixth after a 68.
He had three birdies in his first five holes, but gave the shots all back with bogeys at six, 10 and 12.
However, for the second day in succession he showed a liking for the closing holes, picking up four shots in the last five and he, too, eagled the par-4 15th.
"I think if someone had said 11 under after the first three (rounds) and I am where I am, I'd definitely have taken that," said the British Masters champion.
"I'll be in a good position tomorrow. If I can go out there and shoot a ridiculously low one, you never know."
Fitzpatrick's elevated position on the leader board is all the more impressive given that he feels the course does not suit his game.
"It's quite a long course, but you've still got to put yourself in position off the tee and on the greens," he said. "The greens are big and you've got to give yourself the right angles in. But it's been a good week so far and hopefully one more good round (is to come).
"I'm just trying to finish as high as I possibly can every week. If the highest I can do is 10 this week or 20th, then that's as high as it goes. We've given it our best and that's all you can do."
McIlroy, who missed from four feet for birdie on the 18th, said: "I guess you can't really walk off this golf course, especially in these conditions, and shoot seven under and not feel good about yourself.
"But at the same time, I feel like it could have been a lot better.
"I played fantastically well. I could have been five under through five holes easily. I hit the ball beautifully. Everything was just firing today and that's why I'm walking off the golf course a little bit disappointed because that 65 could have easily been a 62 or a 61.
"The good thing is there's still one round of golf left. If it had been the final day, I'd be kicking myself with some of the chances I missed. I'm playing lovely so it bodes well for Sunday. It's exactly where I want to be, in contention going into Sunday, so it's all good."
Asked about trying to win the Race to Dubai for the third time in four years, the 26-year-old added: "It's just a matter of trying to focus on myself, try and win the golf tournament, and that's all I can do.
"It's my last round of the year and I want to make the most of it. I'd love to finish the year on a high and win the Race to Dubai and I guess more importantly, win this tournament. Another tournament win, that's what I really want.
"At the end of the season, if I walk away with four wins, it's still pretty good. Even though it wasn't the season that I wanted, it would just be huge to walk away here on a high tomorrow."
McIlroy had moved into the outright lead with a hat-trick of birdies from the 13th, but Sullivan responded superbly with birdies on the 15th and 17th to card a 68 and edge back in front, much to the delight of his 30-strong fan club from Nuneaton.American Ryder Cup star Patrick Reed, who lost a play-off for the BMW Masters on Sunday, is three off the lead after a 68, with Byeong Hun An and Emiliano Grillo a shot further back.
Former US Open champion Justin Rose crashed out of contention with a 78.