Graeme McDowell’s hopes of capturing the Honda Classic and his maiden PGA Tour title were horribly mangled by the notorious Bear Trap at the PGA National Champion Course in Florida last night.
The Jack Nicklaus designed three-hole stretch from the 15th to the 17th has proved to be a graveyard for many dreams over the years. And so it proved for McDowell, who bogeyed the par three 15th and then made a double bogey six at the 16th en route to a one over 71 that left him a daunting seven strokes shots adrift of leader Camilo Villegas on four under par entering the final round.
Just 24 hours earlier, McDowell’s honesty and integrity was the talk of the town after he sportingly called a two-stroke penalty on himself for grounding his club in a hazard on the final hole of the second round.
The Portrush native was just one shot off the lead when he got to the par five 18th but his tee shot finished in a few inches of water.
Electing to play the ball from the hazard, he took the club away but caused the water to move almost imperceptibly on his backswing and sensed he had broken the rules.
After a lengthy chat with officials in the TV truck, he accepted a two stroke penalty, carding a seven on the final hole which meant that he began last night’s third round three shots adrift of co-leaders Villegas and Anthony Kim.
It was not an insurmountable deficit by any means and while the Ulsterman had fallen five strokes behind an impressive Villegas over the course of the round, he was still one under par for his round with four holes to play.
The golfing gods had other ideas, however, and the Bear Trap put paid to his hopes as he found water off the 15th tee and bravely got up and down from the drop zone for a bogey four
But he lost the plot at the par-four 16th when he took four to get down from greenside sand and signed for a crushing double bogey six.
Villegas carded six birdies and three bogeys in a three under par 67 to lead by three strokes on 11 under par from Australia’s Nathan Green (67) and the Fiji’s Vijay Singh (69) with the Americans Matt Every and Michael Connell five strokes off the pace in a share of fourth place on six under.
McDowell ended the day seven behind Villegas in a share of eighth place with JB Holmes on four under. But the Portrush man wasn’t the only Irishman licking his wounds last night.
Padraig Harrington shot a lacklustre, two over par 72 to slip back to tied 57th on four over with Rory McIlroy a shot further back after a five over 75 that featured a car-crash finish.
McIlroy’s star has waned visibly since he strained ligaments in his lower back during an intensive, 10-day practice session in Dubai in January
He was strapped up and taking anti-inflammatories at the Dubai Desert Classic and while an MRI scan cleared him to play in last month’s WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, he was clearly out of sorts.
After opening rounds of 71 and 69 at PGA National, he played the front nine in level par before his round unravelled spectacularly over the tough closing holes.
A bogey at the 14th left him on one over approaching the Bear Trap and at the 179 yard 15th, he racked up a triple bogey six when he visited the water from the tee and the drop zone.
The 20 year old Ulsterman then bogeyed the 190-yard 17th after another visit to water off the tee.
It was an equally disappointing day for Harrington, who got off to a bad start when he missed a four and a half footer for par at the first.
Struggling off the tee, he bogeyed the ninth and then three-putted the long par-four 10th from close to 60 feet for another bogey to fall back to five over par for the tournament.
His putter was ice cold too and he used the blade 34 times, making his solitary birdie from 15 feet at the tough 16th.
His rustiness is no surprise considering he has played just eight full rounds of golf over the past three months and with the Masters less than four weeks away, he may well decide to remain in the US after next week’s WGC CA Championship to play the Transitions Championship in Tampa.
“It’s obviously very early in the season for me and I’m kind of caught at the moment between still tinkering on stuff and just getting out there and playing,” he said. “A huge amount the early season is trying to get enough competitive golf so that I’m ready; so that I feel ready and sharp for Augusta.”