Rory McIlroy threatened to shoot his first 59 but ended up disappointed with a 65 as benign conditions turned the Blue Monster into a pink fairy in the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
Tied for 28th and 10 shots behind Bubba Watson going out, the world No 1 scorched to the turn in six under 30. An eagle three at the 10th and a birdie at the 12th left him nine under for the day and just a shot behind the overnight leader, who had yet to tee off.
But as Watson started eagle-birdie, the 22-year old world number one bogeyed the 14th and 16th to fall back to tied eighth with the likes of Tiger Woods on nine under.
In the end he finished the day eight shots behind Watson who took advantage of soft greens and mild winds to shoot a 67 and lead by three from Keegan Bradley and Justin Rose on 17 under.
“I never thought I would stand up here and say I’m disappointed with seven‑under but today is definitely one of those days,” said McIlroy, who had just 23 putts in a happy twosome with pal Graeme McDowell.
“It’s okay. It would have been nice to post a 61 or 62 or whatever, but at least I’ve put myself sort of back into the tournament and given myself a chance to post a high finish. So that’s a positive.”
McDowell shot 67 to move into a share of 18th on seven under and confessed he spent much of the round admiring McIlroy.
“It was obviously fun to play with him and fun to watch him doing what he was doing,” McDowell said. “When he eagled 10 and birdied 12, obviously it was game on for the old magic number.
“He’s just so impressive to watch. I felt like I was shooting 80. I had to keep reminding myself I was five‑under par.”
The Holywood star’s round started shakily and slowly gathered tremendous momentum before coming to an abrupt half five holes from home.
He duffed his third from greenside rough just a few yards from the pin at the first and did well to save his par five before getting his round rolling by pitching in for birdie after hitting his approach heavy and coming up 52 feet short at the second.
But he then hit five birdies in seven holes, draining birdie putts between three and 15 feet at third, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth to turn in six under 30.
His failure to birdie the par-five first and eighth made his front nine all the more impressive but he made amends at the 10th.
Thoughts of a 59 entered McIlroy’s head when he then eagled the 10th with a five wood to 17 feet and chipped close from a awkward lie above a bunker to birdie the par-five 12th.
But the dream ended when he missed fairways at the 14th and 16th and failed to get up and down from short of the green both times.
McIlroy said: “When I was 9‑under through 12, you’re thinking birdie four of the last six, and here we go. But obviously it didn’t happen like that.”
The good news was that he putted well for the first time since his win in the Honda Classic, After taking 32 putts on Thursday and 31 in the second round, he had just 23 on Saturday, single putting 11 times and chipping in once.
Trying to look on the bright side after his sketchy finish, he said: “I putted better, which was nice. I was 74th out of 74 in (strokes gained) putting this week, so I needed to improve that a little bit.
“I think I had ten putts through the first nine holes and that was a big improvement, and I hit fairways, which was the key. That’s what I need to do tomorrow again. This course is so much easier when you put your ball in the fairway.”
McIlroy tossed his ball into the lake at the 18th and made it obvious that he can’t wait for Gil Hanse to come in a redesign the TPC Blue Monster under new owner Donald Trump following next year’s WGC-Cadillac Championship.
“I would rather see the golf course harder,” McIlroy said. “I feel that I play my best golf on tough golf courses. Even like last week at the Honda, minus 12, U.S. Open was a bit different, minus 16, but I like golf courses or I like setups where the winning score is between 8 and 12‑under par. That’s the sort of golf that suits me the best.”
Asked how he’d toughen up the course, McIlroy said he’d like to see the bermuda overseeded.
“The first thing I’d do is change the grass,” he said. “You can see on TV, it’s a little scrappy and it’s a little scruffy and aesthetically it doesn’t look great. Like they overseeded last week at the Honda and I thought it played really, really nicely. I’m sure they could do the same thing here.
“So that’s one thing. I have no clue about course design, so I couldn’t start to tell you what they could do differently. But yeah, that’s one of the things that I’d like to see here, if they just overseeded it, I think it would be a lot better golf course.”
Asked if the Masters would be on his mind today in his last start before returning to Augusta, he said: “No, I’m going to be happy just to go out tomorrow, play, try and post a good number. And then I’ve got three weeks off to really prepare and think about Augusta.”
Darren Clarke had just 24 putts as he fired six birdies in a four under 68 to get back to level par for the tournament.
But like Tiger Woods, who shot a 68 to join McIlroy on nine under, he still lost ground on the leaders.
Wielding his pink-driver Watson had an eagle, six birdies and three bogeys in his 67 to lead by three from Rose (69) and Bradley (66) on 17 under.
Like McIlroy, the left-handed tournament leader is not a fan of the course but when asked if he’d changed his mind after shooting three rounds in the 60’s, Watson said: “In about 24 hours, I’ll tell you.”
Woods was four under after six holes but had to birdie the 16th and 18th to play the remainder in level par for his 68.
The American birdied the par-five first but played the rest of the three-shot holes in two over with a birdie at the 10th cancelled out by bogey sixes at the eighth and 12th.