Shootout on Sunset - McIlroy in Riviera mix as Harrington hits route 66

Shootout on Sunset - McIlroy in Riviera mix as Harrington hits route 66
 Rory McIlroy celebrates his par save on 18

Rory McIlroy celebrates his par save on 18

If this is a taste of what’s to come, roll on the Masters.

Ten players ended up within three shots of the lead heading into the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera and it’s a who’s who of the game’s best with Rory McIlroy’s clutch 18 foot par save at the 18th — he'd missed the fairway and green right — vying with Bubba Watson’s up and down from near a concession stand just a few minutes later for shot of the day.

McIlroy looked ominously efficient at the storied Los Angeles venue on Saturday, struggling off the tee at times but choosing his moments well and crucially holing birdie putts, murdering par-fives and and putting away a series of key par saves to post a 67 that left him just two shots off Watson’s lead on 10 under par.

The quixotic left-hander hit a superb, spinning recovery to a few feet to save par at the last and post a four-under 67 of his own for a one-shot lead over Jason Kokrak (70) and Chez Reavie (69) with Dustin Johnson (68), a runner-up each of the last two years, a shot further back in solo third.

On a day when Pádraig Harrington posted a mightlly encouraging 66 — the joint best round of the day — to move into the top 20 on six under, McIlroy’s homeward nine of 33, courtesy of a slippery 18 foot par putt at the 18th, left him in a five-way tie for fifth with Kevin Chappell (66), K.J. Choi (67),  Adam Scott  (67) and Marc Leishman (68).

“It’s going to be a bit of a shootout tomorrow,” McIlroy said, clearly deligted with his finishing par that featured some serious, deadpan swaggering in a clear alpha male message to his rivals. 

“I’m happy that I stayed at 10-under and didn't drop to nine, because I think it will probably be 12 or 13 that will lead, and I don't really want to be too far back with so many guys in with a chance tomorrow."

Nobody got to 13 under but with Hideki Matsuyama (68) and Troy Merrit (70) just three behind on nine under, Sunday promises to be more than interesting.

Who knows, perhaps someone will produce a 63 from the pack and post an unbeatable number.

McIlroy is hoping to go out and grab the trophy with both hands and eh told Sky Sports he’d be chasing a 65 (six under) and a 16 under total.

The world No 3 certainly reaped the benefits of his recent putting practice, even if he did three-putt the opening par-five by blowing his 50 footer 10 feet past the hole.

His reply was trademark — a 291-yard tee shot and a 195-yard approach that zipped to a halt just four and a half feet from the stick at the tough second. 

That he bogeyed the third was no more than an irritant on a day when 34 players broke par on a course that is still receptive after Wednesday’s rain.

“it was a bit of a struggle at times,” said McIlroy, who birdied the sixth from 12 feet and save pars at the seventh (12 ft), eighth (8ft) and ninth (5ft). “I hit a couple of wayward tee shots and put myself out of position. 

"But the putts that I sort of missed at the start of the round for birdies, I made up for them with a few really good par saves in the middle of the round, a few birdies on the back nine which helped and got a little bit closer to the leaders. 

“So it’s one of these golf courses, if you just stay around, hang in there and not make too many mistakes, stay patient, your time will come and it will present itself with a few opportunities, and thankfully on the back nine I was able to take some of them."

McIlroy birdied the 10th (13ft), 15th (8ft)and 17th (6ft) and missed a chance from six feet at the 16th before that crucial late save.

If he wins on Sunday, he was reminded that he would be become only the third player to have 12 Tour wins before the age of 27 —joining “Jack and Tiger”.

But McIlroy is not getting ahead of himself and knows that he must remain patient on a strategic test that has got his attention.

“I need to hit more fairways,” he said. "I didn't hit my first fairway until the eighth hole today. Even though the rough isn't that long, being in that kikuyu rough, it takes so much control out of your hands. Even though the greens are soft, it’s still very tricky to judge.

"I feel like my iron game is sharp. Short game has been pretty good. My putting was nice today. I felt like I rolled it really well, and I left myself a lot of -- I was quite aggressive and left myself a lot of three- or four-footers by I held out well. I have to continue to do that.”

His caddie will be an important factor on Sunday when it comes to decision making.

“Especially the back nine, that’s where I find myself on the leaderboard; am I leading; am I chasing. The 10th hole, both JP and I were sort of looking at a couple of different ways to play it. Where the pin is tomorrow, you can try to go straight at that pin and leave it in that bunker, but that's a pretty risky play, or you take it left.

"This is probably one of the only courses that I look at the pin position before I even hit my tee shot, you know, because I really want to know where the pin is and where is a good miss and the best place leave of my second shot.

"There's only a few courses like that we play each year that I do that. It's enjoyable. It's great to be able to do that and be so strategic, but at the same time, know to be aggressive to your spots and maybe lay back a bit here and there it. It’s a really well-designed golf course.”

Harrington is too far back to win but he will be hugely encouraged by his bogey-free 66 — his second of the season after his closing 67 in Kapalua.

The Dubliner made five birdies and finished with a positive strokes gained putting number (+4.727) for the first time since the Sony Open in Hawaii six weeks ago.