Rory McIlroy doesn’t just have to worry about the putting brilliance of a Jordan Spieth or the emergence of another ball striking monster in the Jason Day mold. Now he’s got China on his mind.
The world’s most populous nation is now producing great golfers, such as local hero Li Hao-tong, who fired a 66 to be tied for second with Dustin Johnson (65), one shot behind clubhouse leader Kevin Kisner (70) in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
As McIlroy again struggled on the greens, taking 32 putts in a 68 to move up to tied 21st on eight under, Kisner posted four birdies in a round of 70 to move to 16 under par, one shot clear of Johnson, Li and Scott Russell Knox, who still has one hole left to play after darkness cut short his third round in Shanghai.
The threat of lightning had led to a lengthy suspension in the morning, and when play got underway Li made four successive birdies from the first to eat into Kisner’s overnight advantage.
The 20 year old, who came agonisingly close to winning the Shenzhen International earlier in the season, eventually signed for a round of 66 and a 15 under par aggregate total.
Li will have a place in the record books in his sights on the final day, as he bids to become the youngest player – and the first from China – to win a World Golf Championship event.
Giles Morgan, HSBC’s Global Head of Sponsorship and Events, is cleary delighted to see Li in contention.
“If anyone wants to see just how far golf in China has come over the last decade then look at the leaderboard,” Morgan said. “It’s an incredible story and shows exactly why HSBC supports golf and why our junior programs are so important to our sponsorships.
“Hao-tong is one of our own. He was first introduced to the game as a youngster and graduated through the ranks of the HSBC China Junior Golf Program, a development program we started eight years ago.
"Our vision was to have a player from the program finish in the top twenty in the World Golf Championships within a decade. And there is every chance that will happen tomorrow or even better.
"For China and golf to have a homegrown player to be amongst the leaders in ‘Asia’s major’ really is special and no matter what happens tomorrow this is already a defining moment. China is becoming a growing force in the game and Li’s inspired play is proving it once again this week.”
Johnson represents a big threat to the youngster’s hopes of creating history after the World Number Eight joined Li and Knox in a share of second place courtesy of a round of 65.
The lowest round of the day was posted by two-time Major Champion Jordan Spieth, who signed for a flawless 63 to move firmly into contention on 13 under par. The World Number Two was joined in a share of fifth place by England’s Ross Fisher and his fellow European Tour Member Patrick Reed of America.
Spieth and McIlroy began the day on four under but the Masters and US Open champion had 24 putts in a nine birdie round and still complained that he coud have putted a little better.
“I missed four putts inside eight feet today and that’s also not normal in a round of golf,” Spieth said. “So what could have been and what it was, both are special and obviously pleased, because I’ve got a few longer ones to go."
McIlroy had three putted the 16th on Friday, not bothering to mark and clean his ball after leaving his first putt well short.
He showed similar levels of frustration in round three with most of his misses to the right but sounded like a man simply hoping for it all to come right on Sunday with a 62 or 63 leading to an unlikely win or a backdoor top 10 finish.
“Again, I’m hitting the ball well from tee-to-green, and I’ve been struggling on the greens, not just this week but for the past few weeks,” said Race to Dubai leader McIlroy, who is taking next week off before the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. “So I was trying to figure out how to turn that around, and if I do, then I know that there’s a lot of low scores in me.”
Insisting he was back to full health following his bout of food poisoning, he said: "I'm good. I'm much better. I feel good. So I don't think my health's a concern anymore. Just something that was working on me for a few days and thankfully it’s out of my system.
"I felt like I hit the ball really good out there. There was no problems with weakness or lack of energy. I felt like, again, as I said I hit the ball well. My rhythm is back in my swing.
"Eighteen holes doesn’t feel like a slog. I'm feeling much better and I'm hitting the ball well. Just haven’t scored as well as I feel like I should have this week.”
He added: “I’m glad to at least get finished. ...depending what the leaders do, if they are not too far away, if I can shoot 63 or 62 out there tomorrow and post a score, even if that doesn't win, get myself to the top ten or top five, it will still be an okay week.
If McIlroy has had a frustrating week on the greens, it’s been utter torture for Shane Lowry who had 36 putts in a third round 72 after taking 37 on Thursday and 33 yesterday as he cancelled out three birdies with three bogeys and lies tied 70th on five over.
Kevin Kisner, 70 (-16 total)
“I played well today. The weather was difficult, but I hung in there and made some birdies coming in to give myself a chance to be leading going into tomorrow.
“My theory on the Tour and trying to win is your lead is never safe because some guy is going to make birdies. Look at Jordan today, his name popped up, I don't even know where he started and he was on the leaderboard. Just keep making birdies is what I'm going to try to do. I'll look up on about 15 and 16 and see if I need to change my game plan.”
Dustin Johnson, 65 (-15 total)
“It’s always great to be up there and feel like you have a chance on Sunday. I'll definitely have a chance to win tomorrow, and you know, that's kind of all you can ask for. Two years ago here, I had a three-shot lead on Sunday and tomorrow, I'm one behind, but I just need to go out and do what I did today. Just drive it in the fairway and get a lot of looks at birdies.”
Li Hao-tong, 66 (-15 total)
“This tournament is so big. I know that the final day, a lot of people are going to be hitting a lot of birdies. My target, my goal for this tournament it to make the top ten, because making the top ten would be a highlight and a milestone for my short career. I hope that tomorrow I can do well and finish at the position of where I want to.”
Russell Knox, (-3 after 17 holes, -15 total)
“I played beautifully for the first 12 holes, and then I started to limp in a little bit. I decided not to play the last hole because it was awfully dark.
“Our group spoke on the 17th tee. We could easily have not played, but we all hit great shots and walked off with either a birdie or a par. Then Branden and Kevin wanted to get it done on the last, but it was into the wind, so I thought I’d just wait until the morning and see if I can catch it downwind or with no wind at all.
“My caddie didn’t want me to play the last, so I’m happy with my decision. It just means I’m going to have to wake up a lot earlier in the morning, so it will be a multiple breakfast day tomorrow.”
Jordan Spieth, 63 (-13 total)
“Today I came out knowing that it was a gettable golf course. We had a rain delay after the first two holes, I was at even par and those first two were playing pretty easy, so I was pretty frustrated with that and came out and just got it going from there. Once one or two putts went in, a few more did.
“I missed four putts inside eight feet today and that's also not normal in a round of golf. So what could have been and what it was, both are special and obviously I’m pleased.”
Ross Fisher, 65 (-13 total)
“I’m absolutely delighted. I knew the scoring was going to be pretty good today. The first two days, I was kind of playing catch-up, having played with Russell who played very solid. I knew I had to go out and just try to shoot as good a score as I could to try to get myself in with a chance tomorrow. So to go out and shoot seven under, one bogey, six birdies and an eagle, I’m very pleased.”