Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington will go into the final round of the FedEx St Jude Classic with clear options of victory yet both produced error-strewn third round performances at a blustery TPC Southwind that did little to inspire confidence in their chances at next week’s US Open.
McIlroy appeared to have cured the swing glitches that led to missed cuts in his three previous starts when he opened with rounds of 68 and 65 to take a one stroke lead into last night’s third round.
Yet the gremlins remerged as the reigning US Open champion three-putted twice, hit just six of 14 fairways and made six bogeys before a birdie at the 18th gave him a two over par 72 that leaves him in a six-way tie for fourth, just a shot adrift of leaders Nick O’Hern (67), Davis Love (68) and John Merrick (69) on five under par.
“It was a very testing day with the conditions,” world number two McIlroy said afterwards. “I definitely didn’t feel as comfortable with my game as I did yesterday. But it was good to put what I have been working under competitive pressure. For the most part it held up pretty well though there were a few loose shots out there.”
McIlroy added: “It was a tough day. It was a day where I took one step forward and two steps back. Every time I made a birdie, I followed it up with a bogey, felt like.
“It was testing out there, tough conditions and the wind was sort of swirling all over the place and made things tricky. I’m so happy to get back a birdie at the last and one off the lead going into tomorrow.
“I am fortunate that I am only one off the lead because I feel that I didn’t play very well today.”
Despite a morale-boosting birdie from 13 feet at the 18th, McIlroy looks to be fighting against the clock to sort out his game in time for his US Open defence at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
As for Harrington, the Dubliner is just three shots off the pace in a nine-man logjam for 11th. But his one over par 71 should be chalked up as a minor miracle after his start.
The 40-year old world number 96, without a win anywhere since October 2010, suffered a major case of the “rights” and bogeyed four of his first five holes.
Just three shots behind McIlroy on four under following a pair of 68’s, the three-time major champion bogeyed the first and second after tangling with the right rough and was then forced to hole a 10 footer for his a par-five at the third after finding water with his approach.
However, he was soon back on the bogey train, dropping shots at the par-three fourth and the 485-yard fifth after losing tee shots to the right both times before playing his final 13 holes in three under par.
After rattling home a 30 footer at the short eighth and a 25 footer at the ninth for birdies to turn for home seven shots behind early leader Kevin Stadler on two under, the Dubliner bogeyed the short 11th from sand but birdied the 13th and 16th and saved par from eight feet at the 17th to finish the day tied for 11th on three under and just three off the lead.
McIlroy was clearly not firing on all cylinders as he mixed birdies from six and eight feet at the par-five third with bogeys at the second (three putts) and fifth (bunkered approach) before making back-to-back bogeys from the middle of the fairway at the ninth and 10th.
Not only did the 23-year old miss both greens with short irons in hand, he hit two poor chips and followed them with less than convincing putts, something that will be severely punished in San Francisco next week.
A birdie from the fringe at the 12th was quickly followed by bogeys following pulled tee shots at the 13th and 15th and a three-putt par five from 63 feet at the 16th.
McIlroy’s closing birdie will have made dinner taste a little better yet the final round promises to be a cavalry charge with the Holywood star tied with Stadler (71), Dustin Johnson (67), Robert Allenby (67), Kevin Kisner (70) and Chad Campbell (70) with the top 23 players covered by just four strokes.