PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy did what he needed to do Saturday at the Honda Classic, carding a 1-under 69 in windy afternoon conditions at PGA National to increase his lead from one to two shots.
The tough conditions affected the rest of the field, as well – 16 golfers are just six shots out of the lead going into Sunday’s final round.
The names on the leaderboard are a mixture of old and new, starting with Russell Henley in solo second. Henley is two shots behind McIlroy at 10 under after a second consecutive 68 that included jarring a wedge shot for eagle at the par-4 14th hole.
Scotland’s Russell Knox also shot 68 and is three shots back in third place at 9 under. Venezuelan Jhonattan Vegas posted a 4-under 66 and is alone in fourth place at 8 under.
Here are 5 Things you need to know from Saturday’s third round:
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1. INCREASING AND HOLDING ON AT THE SAME TIME: Rory McIlroy will take the 54-hole lead into the final round on Sunday, the first time he’s done that on the PGA Tour since the 2012 PGA Championship.
At that 2012 PGA, McIlroy had a three-shot lead over Sweden’s Carl Pettersson after three rounds before separating himself quickly from the rest of the field with two birdies in the first three holes and finishing with an 8-shot victory over David Lynn.
Following his second major-championship victory, McIlroy had additional success in 2012, but 2013 was the lowest of lows for McIlroy, something he has characterized as a rebuilding phase that is now at its end.
“It’s just about trying to build yourself back up and not really put the pieces back together because it wasn’t that bad, but I feel like I’m much more experienced,” McIlroy said reflecting back on 2013. “I’m in a phase now where I’m just trying to win golf tournaments again, and you know, building towards the bigger tournaments and the majors and feel like I’m on a good path.”
Just last month McIlroy was on the cusp of winning in Dubai, playing in the final group two shots back of Stephen Gallacher. But Gallacher was solid and McIlroy wasn’t, and it was the Scot pulling out the victory.
“I felt like I pressed too much in Dubai when I was going into the final round in the final group,” McIlroy said. “I mean, at the end of the day, I don’t care if I win by one or if I win by seven, as long as you get the job done at the end of the day.”
McIlroy now has 18 holes not to prove or validate what he has been working on for the last 12 months, but to create a comfort level in his own mind that what he does before, during and after the round is what he needs to do to be successful – even if he is not successful on Sunday.
“Of course, to get a win tomorrow is important, but I think just to be in this position going into the final group,” McIlroy said. “It’s the second tournament in a row I’m playing in the final group, so just to keep putting myself in those positions, that’s the most important thing to me.”
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2. HELLO, I’M RUSSELL HENLEY: Luke Guthrie hadn’t played with Tiger Woods until Saturday’s third round and both shot 5-under 65. In Sunday’s final round, the final group will be Rory McIlroy and Russell Henley.
Like Guthrie, Henley has never played with McIlroy.
“I think this is one of those things where it doesn’t get much better,” Henley said of his pairing. “I’m in the final group with a great player. I haven’t played with him yet, but I’ve heard great things about him. I just hope I can go out there and play well.”
Since starting his PGA Tour career at the Sony Open in 2013, Henley hasn’t done better than two additional top 10s and has fallen from 50th in the world ranking after his win in Hawaii to currently 110th.
This season, Henley has struggled, with his best finish a 27th at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but has also four missed cuts, including in three of his last four events.
With the wide variance of success in his short career, what can he expect?
“I can think of a lot of tournaments I’m going to pull from,” Henley said. “But hopefully at worst case, I can learn a lot from it and I think putting myself in this situation, no matter what happens tomorrow, I’m going to be a better player afterwards.”
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3. FINDING MOTIVATION: It was moving day, but for Luke Guthrie, it was more like proving day.
From the minute he saw that he would be paired with Tiger Woods in Round 3, the two of them going out at 7:38 a.m., the one-time University of Illinois golfer was excited.
Did he see it as a chance for a head-to-head comparison?
“Heck, yeah. I wanted to come out here, learn a lot today, obviously play well, and hopefully beat him,” Guthrie said.
True, they had both made the cut on the number and started the day level par, 11 off of Rory McIlroy’s lead. But that doesn’t mean Guthrie didn’t feel the nerves. Especially with Woods making three birdies in seven holes to get off to a solid start.
“I was looking forward to the day,” said Guthrie, 23, who was third in last year’s Honda Classic. “He’s the No. 1 player in the world, maybe the best ever.”
And on this day, Guthrie was equal to the task, because while Woods failed to birdie the par-5 18th and settled for a 5-under 65, the youngster got it up and down from a greenside bunker to match that number.
Take that, Mr. Woods. The kid did OK, so how did he feel?
Guthrie smiled, then shook his head. “It has to soak in a little bit,” he said.
Hopefully it will overnight, because guess what? Guthrie will be paired with Woods again Sunday.
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4. SECOND CUT: Acknowledging a golf shirt that was emblazoned with the Seminole Golf Club logo, Davis Love III nodded his approval.
“Playing there Monday?” he was asked, a reference to the club’s famed member-pro that attracts some of the world’s best golfers.
“Yes,” said Love, “and maybe tomorrow, too.”
He laughed, but it turns out that Love was probably correct. He will get a chance to play Seminole Sunday because he did not survive the second cut at the Honda Classic. Having made the cut on the number at level-par 140, Love shot 72 and finished 54 holes at 2-over 212, tied for 74th.
Since more than 78 players had made the cut (79, to be exact), a second cut was required to are back to low 70 and ties and Love did not survive. Neither did eight others, including Mark Calcavecchia (73) and Erik Compton (74) and painfully, Willie McGirt.
That’s right, McGirt, he of the opening rounds of 65-69 that had him at 6 under. Only four players were ahead of him to start the day, but when Round 3 ended, McGirt was ahead of only five. With a dismal day lowlighted by a quadruple bogey at the par-4 sixth, McGirt made just one birdie, shot 78 and plummeted into a share of 71st.
Instead of challenging for a Honda victory, McGirt had cruelly missed the 54-hole cut.
As for his whining and moaning on Twitter about mudballs and not being able to “play it up,” please. Ryan Palmer played alongside McGirt and shot 69. Rory McIlroy, who played one group behind McGirt, also shot 69, and said: “All the lies I got were pretty good and the ball has stopped picking up mud. So I think it was a good decision by the Tour to play it down.”
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Though Tiger Woods received the bulk of the spotlight for shooting an early 65 and vaulting over 49 competitors, he only shared the honors for best round of the day. Guthrie and three others also shot that number: Brian Stuard, Stuart Appleby, and Matt Every. All of them played in the first 16 groups, before 9:44 a.m. when the wind was packed a little less punch. . . . By all rights, Stuard should have had 64. He three-putted for bogey from 15 at the 18th. . . . There were just three eagles, two of them on par 4s – Henley at the 14th and Brian Harman at the 12th (166-yard hole-out). . . . The scorecard for the infamous “Bear Trap,” which is the par-3 15th, par-4 16th, and par-3 17th: 35 birdies, 163 pars, 31 bogeys, 7 doubles, and 1 “other.” . . . Tyrone Van Aswegen, the last man into the field, shot 7-under 68 to push to 4-under and get into a share of 24th. . . . Justin Hicks is the only one of the 70 players left who has failed to break par at least once.