McIlroy in the lead going into last round at Honda

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Associated Press

Posted on March 2, 2014 at 1:00 AM

Updated Sunday, Mar 2 at 1:00 AM

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Rory McIlroy is 18 holes away from his first PGA Tour victory in 18 months, a chance to show the world he is back on his game.

That's not the way McIlroy views the final round at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy started strong, avoided a big number with a brilliant bogey in the middle and took on the wind and water on the 16th hole for one final birdie Saturday that gave him a 1-under 69 in the toughest conditions and a two-shot lead over Russell Henley at PGA National.

The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland has come to expect this kind of performance.

He finished one shot behind in Abu Dhabi. He played in the final group in Dubai, where nothing went well in the final round. And here is again, making key shots and big putt to keep his nose in front in the Honda Classic.

"I've been building and building toward getting my game to a level where I feel it should be," he said. "And I'm pretty much at that point now."

Saturday wasn't easy.

McIlroy might have saved his day with a bogey on the par-3 seventh. He took a penalty drop from under a palmetto bush, and faced a shot off the pine straw across 20 yards of rough to an elevated green with the pin toward the back right. The shot came off perfectly, and he holed the 8-foot putt for bogey.

"It was one of the best up-and-downs I've ever had, I guess," McIlroy said. "And it was almost like a momentum builder. I just bogeyed the last, but walking off that seventh green with a bogey almost felt like I had saved par or I had almost gained a shot on the field. It kept any momentum that I had going to the next few holes."

He closed out his round with a 5-iron into the wind to 10 feet of the flag on the 16th for a birdie, and then narrowly missed two birdie chances on the closing holes.

McIlroy was at 12-under 198.

Asked about the importance of winning on a major tour for the first time since the World Tour Championship in Dubai at the end of 2012, and the first time since the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick in 2012 on the PGA Tour, Boy Wonder grappled for the right answer.

"It would be nice. It would be my seventh PGA Tour win," he said. "That's what it is. No bigger, no smaller. And I'll go home and have a nice night and get up the next morning and go play the Seminole Pro-Member. So it's all good."

He also knows it's not over.

Henley wasn't doing anything special until he holed out from 150 yards for eagle on No. 14, and then rammed in a 50-foot birdie putt from just off the green at the 17th for birdie that gave him a 68 and put him in the last group for the first time since he won the Sony Open last year.

That's the only time Henley has won — in his debut as a PGA Tour member — and he hasn't been in this situation since then. Henley has only two top 10s since that win down from Waikiki Beach at the start of 2012. Now he has to chase one of golf's biggest stars, on a course where only one players — Ernie Els in 2008 — has come from behind on the final day to win.

"I'm trying not to pay attention to what Rory is doing," Henley said. "Obviously, he's playing great and he's been in this situation a little bit more than me. But I still have a lot of confidence and I'm just going to try to play my game and not worry about what he's doing too much."

Russell Knox of Scotland had a 68 and was three shots behind, while Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela had a 66 and was another shot back.

Tiger Woods is still in the game, but just barely.

Woods matched the low round of the day. He was among five players who shot 65, all before the leaders teed off and the wind kicked into gear, but it was enough to move the No. 1 player 49 spots up the leaderboard and into a tie for 17th. Even so, he was seven shots behind. Woods has never won a PGA Tour event when trailing by more than five shots entering the last round.

"Today was a positive day," Woods said after his lowest score in 10 rounds this year. "Hit the ball well and made some putts and got myself back in the hunt."

It doesn't figure to be easy for Woods or anyone to track down McIlroy, who has converted the 54-hole lead in his last four PGA Tour wins dating to the 2011 Masters, where he blew a four-shot lead. That streak includes the Honda Classic two years, which he won to rise to No. 1 in the world for the first time.

"Definitely not a coincidence," McIlroy said. "I learned a lot that day. I learned not to protect a 54-hole lead. I should have just stuck to the game plan, stuck to my process, not look at the leaderboard, not look at what other people are doing. ... And that's the reason that every 54-hole lead that I've had since, I've been able to close the deal. Hopefully, I can keep that run going tomorrow."

It would be a remarkable turnaround for McIlroy, who a year ago was so frustrated with his game and high expectations that he walked off the course after 26 holes, a mistake he vowed to never repeat.

"There's still 18 holes to go," he said. "But I'm feeling comfortable with where I am."

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