Hail to the chief? McIlroy in the driving seat at Honda
Rory McIlroy hardly noticed the military personnel on the 17th green so engrossed was he in his task. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy hardly noticed the military personnel on the 17th green so engrossed was he in his task. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy didn’t do many exams in his schooldays but the ones he did take he passed with flying colours.

As others stressed, he took them in his stride and when he takes a two stroke lead over Russell Henley in the final round of the Honda Classic today, he can reflect on more high-octane experiences than most players have in a lifetime to help him get over the line and prove to himself that all those clouds that have occasionally blocked out his shining brilliance were lined with silver all along.

No-one bar McIlroy has ever blown a four-shot lead heading into the final round of the Masters by shooting a round as high as 80 and come back to win the next very major by eight shots.

One can only surmise that the list of players who have fled a golf course in torment after 26 holes in one year only to return to win the following season is a very short one indeed.

Winning PGA Tour title No 7 is all about confirmation for the pride of Co Down. Not only would it catapult him from eighth to fourth in the world, it would give him the satisfaction of knowing that his return journey to the top of the game is on the correct trajectory.

For a while it looked as though the 2012 champion would take a sizeable lead into the final round before 24-year old Russell Henley from Georgia holed out from 150 yards for an eagle two at the 14th and then followed a bogey at the next by holing a near 50 footer for a birdie at the 17th to shoot 68 and cut the advantage to two.

Rory McIlroy laments his birdie miss on the 18th. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy laments his birdie miss on the 18th. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

McIlroy shot a 69 in treacherous afternoon winds to double his overnight lead but given the number of superb putts that shaved the hole and ignoring for a moment the miraculous bogey he made from the palmettos left of the par-three seventh, he could easily be comfortably clear of the field.

At 12 under par, the 24-year old former world No 1 has 15 players within six shots of him. But on such a demanding course, he knows that he holds their fate in his hands.

Having thrown away a chance to win the Dubai Desert Classic early this year with a combination of impatience and poor course management, it’s time to put in a textbook performance.

“I felt like I pressed too much in Dubai when I had  when I was going into the final round in the final group,” he said from the comfort of a giant, throne-like, red armchair in the interview room.

“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. 

“Again, it's just going back to being patient.  I don't know what could happen tomorrow. Guys could get off to fast starts, I could get off to a slow one and all of a sudden you're right in the mix with a few people and they all have a chance to win the tournament.  

“But what you have to realise is you're still in with a chance to win the tournament.  So no matter what happens tomorrow, I'm going to be in the mix and if I can stay calm and stay patient and stick to my game plan, then I've got as good a chance as anyone to win.”

The Champion Course at PGA National is a fickle beast. Just ask Brendon de Jonge, who went out in the final group with McIlroy on Saturday, kept pace by matching his birdies at the first and third but then fell apart, carding an six over 76 to tumble for second to tied 24th.

’It's one of the most difficult courses on tour, so it's going to be difficult to make birdies,” McIlroy said. “But obviously the leader makes that job easier for them if you start to come back to the field. 

"So if the leader plays solid and makes pars and doesn't really make any mistakes, then it's a tough course I think to chase on.  So I'm happy that I am in that position to try and make it hard for the guys to catch me.” 

As the leader, McIlroy must now display some course management nous, the shot-making skills that have taken him the top of the leaderboard and the patience of a major champion.

If the famous Luna Park in Coney Island were to christen a new roller-coaster, they might well go for The Rory or The McIlroy so hair-raisingly exciting and terrifying has his career been so far.

Currently approaching a new high following the low of the last year’s walkout, he admits that he’s in “a little bit of a rebuilding phase.”

“Wiser,” he said before considering that too grand a word for his current state

Rephrasing, he said: “I've experienced a lot, and if it ever happens again, I'll know how to deal with it better.”

What better time to put it all together than the final round at the Honda Classic.

Russell Henley in action in round three. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Russell Henley in action in round three. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

If he wants to dethrone Tiger Woods as world No 1, he’s going to have to start winning regularly and a victory today would catapult him from eighth to fourth in the world.

“You know, 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,” he said. 

“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, that's the most important thing to me.”

Following those two early birdies, McIlroy bogeyed the tough sixth and did well to limit the damage to a bogey at the seventh, where he double crossed himself, hooked his tee shot into the palmetto bushes but got up and down after a penalty drop, pitching to 10 feet and holing the putt with the stroke of a man who has been paying attention to Dave Stockton’s advice.

It was clearly the shot of the round and may just be one of the key shots of the week for a man who is determined to make name for himself as having the ironclad consistency of Tiger in his pomp than the more flamboyant but inconsistent Phil Mickelson.

Rory McIlroy holds court after his third round 69. 

Rory McIlroy holds court after his third round 69. 

“I think it was a very solid round of golf,” he said. “It was very steady.  I think a big point in my round was making four on seven, making a really good bogey on the seventh hole, so I didn't go over par for the round.

“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.  So walking to the eighth tee, I was very happy with that.

“As I said this yesterday, it's all about putting your ball in play off the tee and hitting greens and holing some putts when you can.  And I guess I did that.

“I was a little annoyed that I didn't take advantage of the [370-yard] drive I hit on 10. But I made birdie on 12, gave it back on 14, but then made a really good one on 16 and played the two par threes either side very conservatively but I played them smart.

“And this golf course is all about not making mistakes.  I made three bogeys out there today, which is  I guess is acceptable in the conditions, but I'd like to go out there tomorrow and try and limit the mistakes as much as I can.”

Graeme McDowell at impact. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Graeme McDowell at impact. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

McIlroy hit a 45 foot birdie putt at the last that frightened the hole and he looked almost astonished that it didn’t go in. How crucial that stroke turns out to be will be revealed later today.

Scot Russell Knox is three behind on nine under after a 68 with Jhonny Vegas four behind after a 66.

Australian Stuart Appleby, American Ryan Palmer and the Ryder Cup players Luke Donald and Keegan Bradley are six behind.

As for Tiger Woods, he shot his lowest round on the PGA Tour since last August but his five under 65 for five under means he’s seven off McIlroy’s pace.

Having blown a four-shot, 54-hole lead at the Masters, McIlroy knows more than most on how not to protect a lead heading into a final round.

“It could have been bigger,” he said of his advantage. “But the fact is, I'm still in the lead of the golf tournament, and I can't be disappointed with that, and especially with the way I played.  I feel like I played really solid today.  I didn't do much wrong, and I'm feeling comfortable enough in my game that a two-shot lead is a great position to be in going into 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.

“And Russell, I know he had a very impressive win at the start of last season at Sony.  But apart from that I don't really know much about him, so it will be a new experience for both of us tomorrow.”

The polar experiences of that 2012 win and the 2011 Masters disaster will clearly be an advantage for McIlroy, who has turned every 54 hole lead he’s had since then into a win.


“Definitely not a coincidence,” McIlroy said. “I learned a lot that day.  I learned exactly how not to protect a 54-hole lead.  I went out there being very protective, very cautious, and I should have just stuck to the game plan, stuck to my process, not looked 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 54hole lead that I've had since I've been able to close the deal.  Hopefully I can keep that run going tomorrow.”

An out-of-sorts Graeme McDowell bogeyed his last two holes for a disappointing, two over 72 that relegated him to 55th on one under but he’s hoping that his early tee time will give him a chance to take advantage of calmer conditions to shoot a score and head to Doral for the WGC-Cadillac Championship in positive mood.

“Tricky day,” said McDowell, who has not felt 100 percent physically this week. “I got off to a slow start and was one over after four holes on this course and you have to take advantage of them and I bogeyed six as well, which was playing long today.

“I hung in [he birdied the ninth and 14th to get back to level] and I’m just disappointed to bogey the last couple. I hit the wrong club on 17, tugged it a fraction and it scooted up the face of the bunker and I had no shot. Then I had a little gun at my birdie putt on 18 and missed the one back. 

“The unusual thing  about this golf course is that it is so flat calm in the morning and guys can make scores. Look at it now — it’s pumping out there right now.

“I had an eight footer on the last green yesterday and Kenny said, let’s knock this in and get another hour in bed. Ironically, if I had missed that putt on nine yesterday, I might have got out there and played those first four or five holes flat calm.

“So hopefully I can go out early tomorrow and take advantage, get to seven or eight under and make a nice chunk and set myself up well for next week.

“Not making excuses but physically I haven’t been myself. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I am not 100 percent and my body just hasn’t been responding. But we’ll sort it out for next week.”