Conditions were so difficult for the third round at the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach, Florida, that Rory McIlroy was more than satisfied shooting just 1-under. That got him to 12-under and the lead by himself. The wind got up in the afternoon and from a slightly different direction making the closing holes, 15 to 18, more difficult than they already were.
On top of that, they were playing the ball down rather than lift-clean-and-place. Even though the fairways dried out a little more in the wind, the players still lived with the specter of catching a mud ball in the fairway. Brendon de Jonge was the poster boy for that, killing a drive on the 4th that left him with just a half wedge into the green. But the ball had a clump of mud on it that wouldn’t be knocked off with just a little half swing and he ended up making bogey when the goof ball ran amok.
But McIlroy is pretty sanguine about Sunday’s final round. Since the debacle at the 2011 Masters when his 54-hole lead imploded and he was seen hitting a recovery shot from between the cabins, he hasn’t blown a 54-hole lead since:
I learned a lot that day. I learned exactly how not to have — I learned how not to protect a 54‑hole lead. I went out there being very protective, very cautious, and it’s not the way. I should have just stuck to the game plan, stuck to my process, not look at the leaderboard, not looked at what other people are doing.
So it was a huge learning day in my career, and I learned a lot from it 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.
I’m comfortable playing in the lead. Again I think it’s about if you’re playing with the lead, you’ve got to try and let the guys come to you. If you keep playing solid golf, playing smart, hitting fairways, hitting greens, it’s going to make the job of the other guys very difficult if you’re not making mistakes.
Some might have been impatient trying to play with the 36-hole lead in those blustery conditions and feeling like they couldn’t gain any traction, but McIlroy was just fine with his 69 and a 2-shot lead over Russell Henley, winner of the 2013 Sony Open.
Yeah, I stayed very patient. That was a key out there for me today. I didn’t panic. I missed a couple of short putts that I had not missed over the first couple of days. I just stayed nice and calm and patient and knew that I was going to give myself plenty of chances for birdies. I was able to take a couple of them coming in. So I need to just keep that mindset for the last 18 holes.
Which is not to say that he doesn’t think that a win on Sunday is important:
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s important just to keep putting myself into contention. That’s the most important thing for me. You know, it sort of started from the end of last year, but I’ve been building and building towards getting my game to a level where I feel it should be and I’m pretty much at that point now.
So I’m enjoying the process, I’m enjoying the journey of working on my game and trying to get better. So of course, to get a win tomorrow is important, but I think just to be in this position going into the final group, 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.
The big thing for me going into days like this is process. That’s the only thing I think of, stick to your process, stick to visualizing shots, seeing shots, and not putting too much emphasis on any one shot. That’s what I really tried to do. That’s what I’ll try and do again tomorrow.
Russell Henley has his own process to bring to the task of chasing McIlroy down:
I haven’t been paired with him. You know, this golf course is so hard; it demands a lot out of your game, and the wind’s been changing on us, and it’s firmed up a little bit.
I think you’ve got to play all 18 holes every single time. That’s really important for me, because there’s never a place where the course really let’s up on you. It’s really hard the whole time, and not once did I really feel like, okay, well this is a birdie hole.
Most of the time, it’s, okay, I’ve really got to get this in the fairway, I’ve really got to get this close to the green. It’s just such a tough course, and when I think about chasing, I’m not really going to, I’m trying not to pay attention to what Rory is doing.
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.
Henley made a big splash with his win in his first PGA Tour tournament as a pro. But the rest of the year, with the exception of a couple of T6s at the Heritage and the Memorial, was kind of flat. And that continued into the new wraparound season where he’s missed 4 of 9 cuts and made just $121,000:
I learned a lot. Playing out here with these guys teaches you a lot about yourself, about your game. I grew a lot last year as a person and I’m still growing. It will beat you up if you let it, and every time you — I haven’t been playing my best the start of this year but I think a lot of that is more me getting in my own way.
I think my game’s been there. It just has not really shown that much. But I’m starting to try to really keep things really simple out here, because for me, I make them complicated in a heartbeat. Last year I think was a very tough year towards the end of the year for me. I didn’t play like I wanted, but at the same time, I think grew a lot and I’m going to take a lot from that in the future.
For Henley, getting too complicated means that he starts thinking about his swing too much. That’s seems to be a reflexive high ground that all players in trouble swim to. But it turns out it’s much better staying in the flow of the water:
Let’s just say I don’t have a good tournament, a couple tournaments in a row don’t go how you want it to, you start trying to change a lot of what got you there. For me, I’ve never really thought too much about everything in my game. I just try to be athletic and the more I can keep it simple like that, the better.
Scotland’s Russell Knox is 1-shot behind Henley at 9-under after shooting a sporty 68 with four birdies against just two bogeys and he has a very healthy, upbeat mindset:
I feel great out there. It’s not my first time being in this situation. Obviously some guys around me have been there a lot more. No, I feel good. I look forward to my chance tomorrow, and I mean, you never know. This course is so demanding that you’ve got to be right on your game and hopefully my A Game shows up tomorrow.
Now that I’m a professional, I should play good. That’s what I hope to do. If I was playing this game not to be in this situation, then I might as well quit. So I’m right where I want to be and look forward to tomorrow.
Jhonattan Vegas’ 2011 playoff win at the last Bob Hope ultimately deteriorated into shoulder problems that kept him out of the almost the entire 2013 season. He’s very glad to be back and just one shot behind Knox at 8-under:
It felt phenomenal, especially taking a whole year after last year from an injury and making a lot of cuts but not quite getting close to the leaders. It was good. The adrenaline was crushing and it was fun. It’s fun feeling this way and that’s why I’m here.
It was his understandable exuberance at being completely exempt for two years that did him in:
It just became a problem to be honest, just kind of my second year. It just kept getting worse and worse the more I played, especially after winning the first year, you play Kapalua, you play a lot of good tournaments, so you’re playing a lot. I played in more than probably what I should have done, so [the shoulder] just kept getting weaker the more I played.
And it didn’t help that nobody seemed to be able to come up with a good diagnosis. Can you imagine watching your career flashing before your eyes for two years?
It took them a long, long time. That’s kind of when I was frustrated. It was one of those things that I got so many MRIs done, they couldn’t really figure out what it was. I was lucky enough to see this doctor, Richard Hawkins, in South Carolina. He did some ultrasounds, saw some tendons moving. But when he went in, he saw that a few tendons were really damaged and I was super happy to come out of that surgery.
Keegan Bradley is one of four players T5 at 7-under and I focused on him here because his good play seems to be as a result of his coaching change to Chuck Cook, one of the hottest coaches in the business right now. Since a coaching change can be a very big deal, his thoughts were very illuminating:
I switched coaches to Chuck Cook and everything just seems to really be in good shape right now. Feels solid, short game is better than it’s ever been, so I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.
I changed to Chuck about the Malaysia tournament [late October] and kind of been a progression of playing really well all year long. Just been one swing a tournament, and then this week I’ve really held it together and played some good golf.
Jim McClean was my old teacher and he taught me so much and I’ll have fundamentals for the rest of my life. I just felt like I needed a little change, and you know, Chuck was there, and I played a lot of practice rounds with Dufner [also coached by Cook which lead to his PGA Championship], and he was saying he really liked him.
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