Rory gets another final group chance: "It's a great opportunity to see if I've learned anything"

Rory gets another final group chance: "It's a great opportunity to see if I've learned anything"
Rory McIlroy speaking to Golf Channel after his third round 68 left him three strokes behind Gary Woodland heading into the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua

Rory McIlroy speaking to Golf Channel after his third round 68 left him three strokes behind Gary Woodland heading into the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua

Rory McIlroy has been within five shots of the lead heading into the final round of a strokeplay event 65 times since 2011, winning 16 times.

It's an excellent return for any mere mortal, but he knows he might have done better, especially since that 2014 season when he won three times in a row in mid-summer — The Open, WGC Bridgestone Invitational, US PGA — and looked like he'd never finish second again.

In the 35 events he's found himself within five strokes of the leader since that fourth major win, he's won seven times (three from the lead) and he's determined to improve on that success rate tonight when he goes into the final round three strokes adrift of Kansas' Gary Woodland at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

What disappointed McIlroy most last season was that he didn't convert any of his six appearances in final groups in victories.

It was an improvement on the 2016-17 period when he played in just "three or four final" groups all told. But he still expects more from himself and believes he learned a valuable lesson from 2018, where he felt he pressed too hard too early when playing in the final group on final days and came up short in every one.

His lone victory last year came in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he was third, two strokes behind leader Henrik Stenson entering the final round and finished with five birdies in his last six holes, closing with an eight-under 64 to win by three strokes from Bryson DeChambeau.


But having failed to win from the final group in Dubai (1), the Masters (3), the BMW PGA (joint lead), the WGC Bridgestone Invitational (3), the BMW Championship (1) or the Tour Championship (3), he'd like to remain in the hunt until the 72nd hole tonight.

"I don't enter tournaments just to show up. I enter them to try to come and win," McIlroy said after shooting a five-under 68 in a breezy third round that felt less satisfying than his 69 on Thursday or his 68 on Friday in that he only managed to par his last four holes having played them in three under and two under the previous two days.

"I worked pretty hard over the last few weeks trying to get ready for this event and get ready for the start of the year. So, yeah, it's nice that everything's going to plan. Again, another final group is great. Especially coming off the back of not being able to play as well as I would have liked in final groups last year.

"So to get myself right back in contention and see if I've learned anything from last year and try to put that into practice is great."

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy

McIlroy was pleased he managed to deal with a change in wind direction  and happy that the new, controlled, low bullet driver swing he's been working on to put the ball in play more often has been paying off.

With the wind forecast to drop on Sunday, he could find himself in a final round cavalry charge with another five players within seven shots of Woodland — Marc Leishman is four behind; Xander Schauffele and DeChambeau five; Justin Thomas and Kevin Tway seven.

But he feels his game is in good shape and while he hasn't holed a putt longer than 11 feet all week, he's confident he can make Woodland work hard for his fourth PGA Tour win, especially if he continues to find fairways.

"It's been very windy in Jupiter the last few weeks and I've been practising a lot in the wind," he said. "And I've got very comfortable with this little low driver I'm hitting, which is going to be a great shot for me, I think, as the year goes on.

"Even not when it's windy but just if you're trying to find fairways and trying to put it in play, I wish I was, I had a shot that comfortable say at the Tour Championship last year, something where you can just put it in play and get it on the fairway. So that's a shot that I've been hitting a lot in practice, and it's nice to be able to put it in play here this week."

It's a shot, he said, he's had "for a while" but didn't feel comfortable hitting until the end of last year when he made some adjustments to his TaylorMade M3 driver and had those built into his new M5.

"I kept saying to them, I want to have this shot in my bag," he said. "When you test drivers you just try to get good numbers and good launch conditions and hit it 320 yards in the air and try to maximise your distance.

"But I realised last year that I've got enough distance. I need to get the ball more in play. And one of my goals for the year is driving accuracy. I want my driving accuracy to get up into the 60 per cent number. At least into the 60s. It hasn't been there in a couple years."

With his short range wedge play in excellent shape for the most part and his new putter working well, especially inside 10 feet — he's holed nearly 93 per cent inside that range this week — the challenge tonight will be remaining patient and making sure he gets his club selection right with caddie Harry Diamond.

"Since five or six years ago I've won a lot more times and I've closed tournaments out a lot," he said of what he feels is an improved strike rate in final rounds and his confidence in getting the job done.

"I've got a lot more experience. So, yeah, I think it is a lot higher than it would have been five or six years ago. But still there's, every time you tee it up you learn something new, you learn something different, and you try to implement that into the next time you play.

"And I feel like I learned a lot from last year and as I said, it's a great opportunity now to try and see if I've learned anything from that and put it into play tomorrow."

Asked what he'd learned last year, he said: "For me I started a lot of these final rounds like two back, three back. I was three back of Tiger at TOUR Championship, three back of JT (in Akron), I was level with Francesco at Wentworth. There was I was three or two or three back of Patrick Reed at the Masters.

"So just pushing a little too much too early and trying to really force myself to hitting shots or hitting it into positions where I don't really need to and just being patient, it's 18 holes, it's -- a lot can happen in 18 holes.

"I've been six behind with seven to play and just crept over the line or I've been five behind with nine to play and had a chance to win on the last green. So a lot can change in a final round."

Admitting he was too keen to impose himself on the opposition in those final round groups, trying to play the perfect first six holes, he added: "I just forced the issue a little bit too much, yeah.

"My best round of the year was Bay Hill and I always go back to that and I should have learned from that. I wasn't in the final group but I was two behind Henrik going into the final day and I was even par after six or five holes and I could have been 3- or 4-under.

"But I just stayed really patient and just tried to play golf and let it happen and that patience was rewarded that day. So that's the sort of mindset I need to try to get back into."

Woodland (34) has won just three times on tour but become more than just a power player in recent seasons but having been caught my McIlroy on 14 under through 12 holes, he eagled the 15th from 64 feet (pin in the hole) to go two clear, then made a ticklish 12 footer for a closing birdie to lead by three from the Co Down man on 17-under par.

McIlroy brushed him aside 4 and 2 in the final of the WGC-Cadillac Match Play in San Francisco in 2015 and while he's failed to win from the lead six times since then, he came from three shots behind Rickie Fowler to claim his third PGA Tour win the Waste Management Phoenix Open last year and feels he's a different player to the man who lost at Harding Park nearly four years ago.

"I think the difference is I'm a completely different player than I have been in the past," said Woodland, who is playing with a heavy heart following the death of his grandmother on Friday.

"I've obviously been in the position multiple times. It's nice to build off those and take certain things out of them. But it's nice playing with Rory, because one he plays really quick, we hit it similar distances so we can club off each other.

"And he's a great guy so that definitely helps tomorrow. But tomorrow I've got to go out and play aggressive. I'm playing well enough where I don't have to play conservative. I can attack and continue to trust what I'm doing and should be good."

Like fellow Kansas man Tom Watson, Topeka native Woodland feels comfortable in the wind and that will make him an even tougher player to beat over the Plantation Course at Kapalua today.

“I’ve just got to go about my business, hit fairways, hit greens again,” said McIlroy, who has gone 32 holes without a bogey. “I didn’t make a bogey today. If I can go out and make that a goal tomorrow, try not to make any mistakes and pick off my birdies when I can, that hopefully might be good enough.

“But the way Gary is playing, it might not be. So I just have to go out and try to play a good round of golf.