|Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot on the 13th hole. (AP-Yonhap)|
McIlroy started strong, 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 Saturday 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.
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 is again, making key shots and big putt to keep his nose in front in the Honda Classic.
“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 the 8-foot putt for 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. It kept any momentum that I had going to the next few holes.”
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.
Asked about the importance of winning on a major tour for the first time since the World Tour Championship in Dubai at the end of 2012, and the first time since the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick in 2012 on the PGA Tour, Boy Wonder grappled for the right answer.
“It would be nice. It would be my seventh PGA Tour win,” he said. “That’s what it is. No bigger, no smaller. And I’ll go home and have a nice night and get up the next morning and go play the Seminole Pro-Member. So it’s all good.”