The Rory bounce is back — and with good reason.
After firing a bogey free 68 — the second best score of the day — to take a three stroke lead into the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral, 26 year old McIlroy can take a big step forward on the road to Masters glory.
He can’t get back to world No 1 with a win on Sunday but if he triumphs and becomes just third player post World War II after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to win 12 PGA Tour titles before the age of 27, the Co Down man may well will feel bulletproof as Augusta looms.
The change to the left-hand under putting grip is not yet second nature to McIlroy, which is perhaps not a bad thing as it may give him more pause for thought on the greens.
But if the effect lasts until early April, it may prove to be a masterful decision to make such a radical change. Whether he can ingrain it in time remains to be seen.
“I feel like the putting is becoming instinctive,” McIlroy said after a 28 putt round that was as impressive for his birdie successes as it was for the back nine par saves that kept his rivals at bay.
"I definitely think the first day, I was focusing more on the technical side rather than the feel side. But I think that just comes over time, playing more rounds, hitting more putts and getting a little bit more comfortable.
"It's felt pretty good the last couple of days. It's felt for the most part instinctive and I haven't really thought about the comfort of my hands on the grip. It feels like it’s going on there very naturally, and I’ve been putting a good stroke on it obviously and hopefully that continues."
Two behind Adam Scott starting the day, McIlroy outscored the Australian by five strokes, 68-73.
It wasn’t just that he played great, controlled golf for most of the day but that Scott was denied on the greens and didn’t have what he described as his “best stuff.”
How much playing with McIlroy was a factor in not having his "best stuff" remains to be seen but it may have been significant. McIlroy is intimidating when he's on and he's clearly on in every way so far.
Not even the thought of a Sunday bombs away final round pairing with Dustin Johnson carried a certain element of risk of the Alpha Male type, (ie a big hitting contest), he smiled and conceded it was a vague possibility,
“Sometimes it has been," he said. before adding. "But most of the time I’ve come out on top of that."
Take that DJ.
McIlro gave the impression that he’d like to have put the title beyond doubt in round three but didn’t quite reach his target.
As things stand another 68 on Sunday would leave the likes of Scott and Johnson requiring 65s for a playoff. And given how well McIlroy is playing, the best they can hope for is a 12 under target.
“I feel like the practice that I’ve put in over the last few weeks is really starting to pay off,” said McIlroy, who revealed that he sought approval from Dave Stockton Jnr and his pal Harry Diamond by sending them videos of his new putting grip last weekend.
"Just look at some of the saves I had out there today and some of the big par putts; those were the things that were missing over the past three or four tournaments. And to be able to correct that and go out and play in a final group on a Saturday in a golf tournament like this on a golf course like this, and play bogey-free, it gives me a lot of confidence going toward.”
McIlroy birdied the first (4ft), fifth (7ft), 8th (21/2 ft) and 10th (16ft) before parring his way home.
And it was the par saves down the stretch that were as significant as the birdies — perhaps more.
The first of them came at the 12th, where he pulled a three wood second and left himself no third shot. After chipping into the trap, he splashed out to nine feet and rolled in the par putt.
Scott was level for the day at that point and two behind and he soon fell three back when he bunkered his tee shot at the 13th.
That he birdied the 14th despite finding sand off the tee was a true feat but just when it appeared that McIlroy might three-putt the 15th, the Ulster star calmly rolled in a five footer for par to remain two in front.
Scott them lipped out for birdie at the 16th and bogeyed the 17th after a poor drive and another good putt that didn’t drop.
Johnson had closed to within two of McIlroy on 10 under but then bogeyed the 18th to fall back to nine under.
While Scott had a 20 footer for birdie at the last, he missed and McIlroy got up and down from the right trap, holing another clutch six footer for par.
“Rory played the round everyone was looking for out there pretty much,” Scott said. "Pretty stress-free, 4-under, he made a few nice putts, and you know, three back is a probably the disappointing thing. But yeah, in with a chance tomorrow, with a good start…
"I've seen Rory play some great golf. I think he's going to be very satisfied with that round. Looked like he was under total control. Of course, there are a couple shots here or there that he could nitpick but it was really all under control.
"He scrambled when he had to. He executed a lot of great shots. He drove the ball great. And that’s what I’m talking about; if you drive the ball great, you're going to create more opportunities our here, and that's what he did well and I didn't do well today."
If his rivals needed reminding, McIlroy’s 324 yard drive up the 18th was a thing of beauty. But it’s likely he will need the putter to complete the job.
While Scott and Johnson just three behind, the next nearest bunch are five behind — Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and Danny Willett.
As an early curtain-raiser for the Masters, this is just what McIlroy needs and it’s important he completes the job.
In the 14 events, he’s led or co-led after 54 holes, he’s won nine. Making it 10 out of 15 would be a huge plus considering the change in his putting set up.
Failure, especially if it comes on the greens, may unravel much of the good work he’s done so far.
"Yeah, it is, it's important. I always say I want to go into Augusta with at least one win under my belt each years. I've got a great opportunity to do that this week. It's always nice to be in contention.
"I feel like the best way to prepare for golf tournaments is to get yourself into contention and feel -- because that what shows up weaknesses in your game is being under pressure at the critical moments and seeing how it holds up. And for three days, my game’s held up very well, and we'll go out tomorrow and try to play another solid round and hopefully that's good enough.
"I think I just have to set myself a target and try and go for that. It is a challenging golf course and I have to play smart, of course. But I need to set myself a target and I need to take advantage of the holes that I have been taking advantage of the whole week, the par 5s and some of the shorter par 4s; and playing smart on some of the holes where you can get yourself into trouble.
"I guess try and set myself a number that I think if I get to that, it's going to be very hard for the other guys to get there. That’s what I’ll try and concentrate on."
Asked if the possibility of joining Nicklaus and Woods in the record books meant anything, he said: “Of course it means something. You're being mentioned with two of the best players to ever play the game. It's flattering and it's special. It's up to me to go out and do it, so -- I haven't done it quite yet. There's still a long way to go. There's 18 holes to negotiate out there tomorrow, and hopefully I will join that illustrious company tomorrow night. But I need to concentrate and play a good round of golf.”
Since he blew the 2011 Masters trying to defend a lead, McIlroy has had the lead or a share in 10 events worldwide and won eight of them.
The exceptions were the Honda Classic and the Tour Championship in 2014 and he’s not going to change his game-plan at Doral.
"Again, it goes back to what I just said earlier, to setting yourself a target and setting yourself a number and trying to get to that. Because when you have a lead that's, say, a three-shot lead, for example, you set yourself a number that you think is going to be achievable, but you know that it's going to be very difficult for the guys behind to get to that number.
"And that's very much -- that's been my approach to having 54-hole leads, basically, since Augusta in 2011. That's what I learned, that you can't protect a lead. You can't defend. You have to just keep going and set yourself a target. Basically, I can't play defensive. Defensive isn't my style.
"So I need to go out there and be aggressive and be assertive. Obviously pick and choose your moments, but for the most part, set yourself a number, get out there, do it. And that takes everything else away, as well. It takes the thought of winning a tournament, the thought of -- all the other stuff. Because if you’re just going out there trying to shoot a number, at the end of the day if you shoot that number and achieve your goal, you're going to walk home with the trophy anyway."
Rory McIlroy career 54-hole leads
- 2008 Omega European Masters – 2nd
- 2009 Dubai Desert Classic – WIN
- 2011 Omega Dubai Desert Classic – T-10
- 2011 Masters – T-15
- 2011 U.S. Open – WIN
- 2012 Honda Classic – WIN
- 2012 PGA Championship – WIN
- 2012 DP World Tour Championship – WIN
- 2014 Honda Classic (2 shot lead) - Lost in playoff (+4 74)
- 2014 Open (6-shot lead) - WIN by 2
- 2014 US PGA (1 shot lead) WIN by 1
- 2014 Tour Championship (T1) T2
- 2015 Omega Dubai Desert Classic (4 shot lead) WIN by 3
- 2015 Wells Fargo Championship WIN