If the World No. 1 ranked player Rory McIlroy reckons the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational was more akin to a U.S. Open, then it must have been tough.
Yes, tough enough that not one of the 69 players who made the halfway cut managed to break 70 on the Bay Hill course.
Indeed, current World No. 3 Brooks Koepka, a four-time Major winner, produced the highest score of his PGA Tour career of a nine-over par 81 to drop 24 spots into a distant share of 64th place.
England’s Tyrrell Hatton, continuing to fight off a stomach bug he picked in last fortnight’s WGC – Mexico Championship, holed a brilliant 23-foot birdie putt at the final green in a round of 73 to seize a two-shot lead at six-under par heading to the final day of the $US7m event.
McIlroy, in the group ahead of Hatton, had birdied the par-5 16th after a booming 354-yard downhill drive, to get within a shot of the Englishman but then at the last his approach shot leaked right and bounced off rocks surrounding the green before disappearing to a watery grave.
McIlroy walked off with a bogey ‘5’ to end the day tied in second place with fellow former Arnold Palmer winner Marc Leishman (72) on four-under.
South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout (73), South Korean Im Sung-jae (74), New Zealander Danny Lee (75) and American Harris English (74) were three strokes behind.
McIlroy’s round included just the one birdie at 16 and also bogeys at the second and the last in bright but generally very cold conditions in suburban Orlando.
And after signing his scorecard, McIlroy spoke of the toughness of the day.
“I was standing up here yesterday and I said the weekend’s just going to be about hanging around, hang around the lead, make pars, pick off your birdies when you can, and that’s sort of what I did today,” said McIlroy.
“I bogeyed the second hole and then I made, whatever it was, 13 pars in a row, and then finally made a birdie on 16. But it was a day where you just had to grind.
“You weren’t going to hit a lot of greens. You had to salvage pars when you could. I made a few good par saves out there. And looking at the scores it’s just, you know, it felt like a U.S. Open out there. So it was, yeah, it’s a good test. But then it’s still a mental grind and it’s all about just trying to stay as patients as possible out there.
“I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can and as I said, just hanging around and it looks like I’ll be one off the lead going into tomorrow.”
Hatton is a double Alfred Dunhill Links champ and is in the States contesting the first of seven events over the next eight weeks and while he’s used to the cold of competing in Scotland, he did not quite expect the same weather in the Sunshine State.
“I said to Mick (caddy), this is actually like a summer’s day back in Scotland. I was quite happy I actually packed the jumper today. But it’s amazing how much the temperature dropped and how short the ball was traveling at the end,” said Hatton.
And now after the controversy at last week’s final hole at the Honda Classic involving Tommy Fleetwood, Hatton is in prime position to present embattled NBC analyst Paul Azinger with another opportunity in contracting ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease.
Graeme McDowell’s bright start in shooting a 68 on day one has faded poorly in since producing scores of 74 and 76 that sees him now head to the final round sharing 23rd spot at two-over par.
GMac’s third day was off to a nightmare in taking a double-bogey ‘6’ at the first and then posting four bogeys over his next six holes to be six-over for the round before a better back nine of three birdies and only one dropped shot.