PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — 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.
McIlroy started strong Saturday at the Honda Classic, 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 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 this year.
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 he is again, making key shots and big putts to keep in front in the Honda Classic.
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“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 an 8-foot putt for a 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.”
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, but 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.
Russell Knox of Scotland had a 68 and was three shots behind.
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.
“Today was a positive day,” Woods said after his lowest score in 10 rounds this year.
• Australia’s Karrie Webb shot a 2-under 70 to take a one-stroke lead over American Angela Stanford after the third round of the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore. Webb had an 11-under 205 total.
• England’s Ross Fisher increased his lead to five strokes in the Tshwane Open in Centurion, South Africa, shooting a 5-under 67 to reach 18 under at The Els Club at Cooperleaf. Fisher won the last of his four European Tour titles in 2010.