Shane Lowry remains on course to claim his first European Tour title since 2015 after extending his advantage to three shots on day three of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA.
The 31 year old secured the most recent of his three victories at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational over three years ago but he is in pole position with one round remaining after posting a third-round 67.
Lowry showcased his short-game prowess on a breezy afternoon at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, mixing seven birdies - including three in a row from the sixth - with two bogeys on Friday to get to 17 under par.
Sterne was Lowry's nearest challenger on 14 under following his third-round 69, while Ian Poulter finished his round with an eagle to head into the final day in third place on 12 under.
Lowry began his third round with a one-shot lead over Sterne and Louis Oosthuizen after following up Wednesday's sensational 62 with a 70 on Thursday.
He extended his advantage to two strokes after getting up and down from the bunker at the second to notch an early birdie on Friday.
But after fast starts saw Scott Jamieson and Sterne jump to 12 under, Lowry surrendered the outright lead when he dropped his first shot of the day after getting into bunker trouble at the short fourth.
The Irishman rallied, though, reeling off a trio of birdies at the sixth, seventh and eighth to get to 15 under and open up a four-shot lead over the chasing pack.
South African Sterne soon reduced the deficit back to two, though, holing his third shot at the tenth from the fairway for an excellent eagle.
But Lowry took advantage of the short 12th for the third day in a row, knocking in his birdie putt from ten feet to pull three shots clear.
Sterne drained his monster birdie putt at the 15th from around 40 feet to keep in touch but Lowry also made a birdie from some 15 feet at the course's fourth par three to get to 17 under and regain his three-stroke lead.
Lowry carded his second bogey of the day at the 16th but bounced back with a close-range birdie at the last to remain on track to complete a wire-to-wire win.
The leader knows he still has work to do in Saturday's fourth round to keep his nose in front.
He said: "I felt very comfortable out there today and I'm very happy with that, very excited about tomorrow.
"Obviously I'm in a great position. It's been a while since I've been up having a lead going into Sunday. I'll enjoy it, have a nice dinner tonight and get ready and give it my best tomorrow and see what happens.
"We're in a world-class field here this week so I know they are going to come out firing tomorrow.
"So I need to stay aggressive and try to make as many birdies as I can and see where that leaves me on the 18th green."
Sterne has not been in the winner's circle since clinching his sixth European Tour title at the Joburg Open in 2013.
He is happy to be in the reckoning with one round left to play.
"It's nice to be in contention," he said. "It's been a long time.
"I've managed to win a few in my life, so hopefully there's something left there and if we can have a chance coming down the last five or six, that would be a nice way to finish."