Rory McIlroy was smiing again during the third round at Doral. Fran Caffrey / www.golffile.ieWorld number one Rory McIlroy insists his confidence is on the rise again after reaching its lowest ebb “ever” following a stuttering start to the season and that shocking Honda Classic meltdown 10 days ago.

As a relentless Tiger Woods birdied the last for a 67 to take a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell into the final day of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, McIlroy carded his second successive sub par round at Doral’s Blue Monster and declared that he’s “excited” about his game again with just over a month to go before the Masters.

“I’ve started hitting the ball a lot better this week,” the 23-year old Northern Irishman said after a third round 71 moved him up to joint 30th on three under par. “I’m getting there.  It’s good to see some good shots out there and to make a few birdies on the back nine was nice.”

After some early short game errors saw him slip to three over after just four holes, McIlroy birdied the sixth and then followed a bogey at the 10th with five birdies in his next six holes.

Despite a three-putt bogey from 50 feet at the last, he was in buoyant mood afterwards and confirmed that he’s seen enough positive signs to rule out adding an extra event to his schedule before Augusta.

“I’ve thought about it, and no,” said McIlroy, whose next event will be the Shell Houston Open at the end of the month. “I know that I’m moving forward in my game and I’m going in the right direction.

“This time last week, I was standing on the range at The Bear’s Club grinding my ass off trying to find a swing that worked. Another productive day tomorrow and it will give me something to work on and work towards for the next few weeks.”

Reflecting on his walk-out 10 days ago and his poor start to the year, McIlroy said: “My confidence was probably the lowest it’s ever been. But I guess putting in the hard work and knowing what I’m doing is the right thing and that I’m going in the right direction, it gives me confidence going into the next few weeks.”

Woods saw his two-shot overnight lead disappear when McDowell opened with an eagle three and added birdies at the third and sixth to join him on 15 under par.

The 14-time major winner birdied the eighth to turn one ahead of the Northern Irishman, who three-putted the par-five 10th for a disappointing par before making his first bogey of the tournament at the next.

It appeared that McDowell’s challenge was over when he double bogeyed the 14th and Woods birdied the short 15th to go six shots ahead of him on 18 under par.

But McDowell chipped in for an eagle two at the driveable 16th and then closed the gap to just three shots when Woods lost a ball up a palm tree at the 17th and bogeyed.

McDowell then made an incredible two-putt par from 85 feet at the 18th for a 69, denying Phil Mickelson a place in the final group for the second day running before Woods drained a 16 footer for his 24th birdie of the week to get to 18 under.

Left hander Mickelson and compatriot Steve Stricker also posted 69s to share third place on 13 under, five shots behind Woods, who is chasing first WGC win since the 2009 Bridgestone Invitational.

Defending champion Justin Rose shot a two under 70 to share 19th place on six under while Lee Westwood’s 71 left him joint 30th with McIlroy, 14 strokes behind Woods

Padraig Harrington had nine single putts in a four under 68 to jump from the back of the field to joint 41st on level par.

The Dubliner followed a birdie at the first with a bogey at the second but the holed a seven footer at the seventh and a 10 footer at the eighth for birdies to turn in 34.

After starting for home with six straight pars, he chipped to six feet at the driveable 16th to get to three under for the day, holed a 15 footer from the fringe at the 17th and narrowly missed a five footer at the last for what would have been a hat-trick of birdies.