Perhaps, given recent history, Rory McIlroy will take this position and the relative peace and quiet that comes with it. The Northern Irishman will be spared the pursuit of the Players Championship from the last group of the tournament. Spared is the appropriate term: McIlroy has not won on the previous nine occasions he has played in Sunday’s final pairing. Analysis of that has become a rising theme, one that will now be irrelevant regardless of the outcome here.
McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood trail Jon Rahm’s 15 under par by a shot with 18 holes of the PGA Tour’s flagship event to play. McIlroy’s third round of 70 was far from a disaster but he appeared uncomfortable for the first time in this tournament; as demonstrated by his finding of just four fairways in regulation. The 28‑year‑old duly headed for a range session after completing media duties. “I hit it really good for the first couple days,” McIlroy said. “I don’t know, I was just maybe getting ahead of it a little bit. I missed a few to the right, so was maybe just getting a little quick from the top. It’s probably something very simple.”
McIlroy had dropped shots on his first two third-round holes. The scorecard blemishes ended there. A gloriously faded long iron to the par-three 8th, which left a tap-in birdie, was one of the shots of McIlroy’s year, let alone this competition. There was just a single birdie thereafter. McIlroy had to make do with a par at the par five 16th having found water in two.
“I’m in a good position – not the best position I could be in – but I thought after the start today that to play the last 16 holes in four under par with no bogeys was a good effort,” McIlroy added. “I just got off to a bit of a slow start. I don’t mind bogeying the 1st, that’s fine. But then the bogey at the 2nd hole was a little disappointing. I showed some character out there, showed some grit. I got a few back, it would have been nice to pick up a couple in the last few holes but I’m still right there going into tomorrow.”
Rahm had not particularly featured in analysis of this tournament before day three. A 64, which included a stunning back nine of 30, completely altered that scenario. Pinpoint iron play was key to the Spaniard’s scoring; keeping his occasionally colourful emotions in check will be essential if Rahm is to return what would be the biggest success of his career.
“I don’t know what my scoring average has been on Saturday over the last two years but I think I’ve beat it by quite a bit,” said Rahm. “It was a great day. I didn’t miss many shots out there. The only bogey today I made was at the 6th and it was after a good shot that landed a foot from the hole. So it was one of those days.”
Fleetwood made a double bogey at the 1st, which appeared ominous given his Saturday struggles at last weekend’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. This time, the Englishman steadied the ship; Fleetwood played the remaining 17 holes in four under to leave him just a stroke from the lead. Fleetwood’s third-round highlight was a converted birdie putt from 28ft at the 8th before he hit his tee shot at the 17th to 2ft. It is Fleetwood who will have Rahm for company on Sunday.
Jason Day’s 68 moved him to 12 under. Mexico’s Abraham Ancer is a shot further back with a sextet at 10 under including the world No 1, Dustin Johnson.
Tiger Woods’s 72 left him rather making up the numbers at three under. A straightforward two at the 17th marked a five-shot improvement on Friday. The 14-times major winner will soon turn his attention to the group format of the WGC Match Play in Austin, which will mark Woods’s last appearance before the Masters.
“I’m guaranteed to play three rounds in a couple of weeks and so that’s basically like a tournament and we’ll see from there,” Woods explained. “The whole idea is I’m not going to play as much as I did last year.”