5 Things: McIlroy, Garcia set for a Sunday duel

Sergio Garcia fired a 3-under 67 on Saturday and will take a three-shot lead into the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

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AKRON, Ohio – When dark clouds, lightning and heavy rain enveloped Firestone Country Club just before 1 p.m. Saturday, third-round play in the Bridgestone Invitational was halted.

When the coast was clear 3 hours, 17 minutes later, fourth-round play in the Open Championship was resumed.

Only kidding. But with Sergio Garcia returning to play his final three holes in level par and Rory McIlroy completing his round par, birdie, birdie, a repeat, of sorts, of the recent action at Royal Liverpool was put in motion for Sunday’s final round of the Bridgestone.

With roles reversed, that is.

“It will be nice to see if I can do the same thing he did to me at Hoylake,” Garcia said with a smile after shooting 3-under 67 at water-logged Firestone CC. He pushed to 14-under 196, but with an explosive finish to fire 66, McIlroy got to 11 under.

The three-stroke difference isn’t quite what we had a few weeks ago (McIlroy led by seven and ended up winning by two over Garcia and Rickie Fowler), but the Spaniard certainly respects the similarities.

“I think we’re both excited about it,” Garcia said. “We’ll see.”

Indeed, we will, but before jumping ahead, here are 5 Things from the weather-plagued third round:

• • •

1. A 59, BUT NOT FOR THE BOOKS: When Garcia blistered Firestone CC with eight birdies on his back nine Friday, then shot 3-under 32 on his outward nine Saturday, it added up to 18 holes of 59.

Doesn’t count for historical purposes, of course, but it sure went a long way toward building that three-stroke cushion.

When he missed the green wide left and then a 4-footer for par at the 14th, Garcia saw his stretch of 46 consecutive holes without a bogey come to a halt. In a way, it’s the tidiness of his play thus far, and not the 16 birdies that has him smiling.

“To be able to not make many mistakes (just two bogeys) on this golf course is always very positive,” Garcia said. “It’s something I’m very proud of, but there’s still one more day to go.”

• • •

2. BUT LOOK WHO IS ON THE CHASE: Having trailed by four through 36 holes, McIlroy said he had one goal for the third round.

“Try and get in the final group (for the fourth round),” he said.

Mission accomplished, thanks to birdies at 17 and 18 for the second straight day. It assured McIlroy of a spot opposite Garcia and while he trails by three, he said he relishes the opportunity.

“It will be nice to play alongside him and at least keep an eye on what’s going on,” McIlroy said. “Try to apply a bit of pressure when I can.”

That doesn’t sound so far-fetched when you consider the sort of roll McIlroy has been on. Clearly unruffled by the turmoil to his personal life (i.e., breaking off the engagement to Caroline Wozniacki), McIlroy in his last 23 PGA Tour rounds is a whopping 45 under par. He’s been in the 60s 13 times and he’s won twice – both times on European soil.

Which isn’t to say he can’t bring that to American soil, because if there’s an air of confidence around McIlroy, credit the way he’s hitting it off the tee.

“I’ve never driven the ball better,” he said. “I’m excited. I really am. I feel really comfortable with that part of my game.”

The young man has the numbers that support his claim as he’s hit nearly 60 percent of his fairways (25 of 42) to rank T-12 and his driving distance average (333.6) is second. On the 385-yard 17th, just for an example, McIlroy has birdied it three times, hitting exquisite tee shots to leave himself just 106, 70 and 74 yards, respectively, and to birdie 18, a 460-yarder, both Friday (340 yards) and Saturday (304 yards), he hit massive drives into the fairway.

It’s hard to imagine there’s ever been a more confident guy going into the final round three behind. So confident that he didn’t mind the question about chasing down Garcia, adding to his Open Championship price, then going into the PGA Championship with another major try.

“It would be nice to go to Valhalla looking for three (wins) in a row,” he said. “It would be a pretty good three in a row to try and achieve.”

• • •

3. CALL HIM MR. FIRESTONE: Though he bogeyed two of his final four holes, Graeme McDowell walked off liked he owned the place.

“It’s way below my scoring average at Firestone, I’ll say that,” McDowell said, and while he may not have had the numbers in front of him, he was spot on. The Northern Irishman had shot 66 to push to 3-under 207 and a look at the record book proves he is correct.

McDowell came into this year’s Bridgestone with a 70.91 scoring average for his 24 rounds in six visits to the tournament. No question, it’s not his type of course, but McDowell credited his work on “flighting” his golf ball for his improved effort this year.

Tied for 18th through 54 holes, McDowell is in line for his best finish in this World Golf Championship. (Presently, that’s T-22, in 2010.

In his previous six times at Firestone, McDowell had been 22 over.

• • •

4. DOUBLE DUTY: When the horn blew to suspend play, Adam Scott was left with a 23-footer at the 18th green. When he returned hours later, he handled the chore by himself, no caddie needed to carry the putter. “Amazing the things I’m capable of doing by myself,” Scott said, laughing. He had made the sensible decision to let caddie Steve Williams call it a day and when the Aussie made that final putt to share the low round of the day, 5-under 65, Scott was 9 under, tied for fourth.

“I studied my greens book for a few hours,” Scott said, when asked what he did during the rain delay.

Playing competitor Henrik Stenson also waited more than three hours to take one stroke and complete his third round. The Swede poured in his 14-foot putt for birdie and shoot 68. He’s tied for eighth, at 5 under.

• • •

5. SHORT SHOTS: Rickie Fowler had one of the few hiccups of his season. Tied for fifth and just six off the halfway lead, Fowler plugged his second shot into the bunker at 18, made double, shot 72, and fell into a share of 10th, now 10 behind . . . Sunday could be a huge day for Keegan Bradley. Tied for 16th in the Ryder Cup standings, he’ll enter Round 4 in a share of fourth, six back, and with a sizzling finish he could improve his outside chances of being an automatic pick at best and solidify suspicions that he’s a great captain’s pick at worst . . . 10 players have broken par each day . . . . . Jason Day’s disjointed season continued when he withdrew three holes into his third round. Having opened 74-71, Day was miles off the lead when he complained of dizziness. The Aussie, ranked ninth in the world, won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, but owed to a nagging thumb injury he has played in just 10 tournaments, finishing 72 holes a mere six times . . . . . Ben Crane, having shot 73-70, withdrew before the start of Round 3, citing a bad back . . . . . Bubba Watson hit a 424-yard drive at the par-5 16th – and made bogey. His second shot from 238 yards found the water. He hit a 306-yard drive at 17 – and made bogey. His approach from 77 yards found the greenside bunker. He hit a 356-yard drive at 18 – and made par.

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