Bay Hill showed its bite on day three, leaving Rory McIlroy frustrated as he slipped four shots off the lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational heading into the final day in Orlando.
The World No.5 laboured to a four-over 76 in his third round that saw him fall to three-under, trailing leaders Billy Horschel and Talor Gooch with one day’s play remaining as the firm conditions and penal rough caught out most.
Overnight leader Viktor Hovland was another to struggle as a 75 has him one shot back heading into Sunday at six-under, with Scottie Scheffler’s 68 one of the rounds of the day, moving him into solo fourth at five-under.
Another to thrive was Graeme McDowell, who carded four birdies on his back-nine on the way to a 69 that has him alongside McIlroy in a share of seventh at three-under and carrying some form into the final round after making only his second cut in his last eight starts.
Indeed, his mood will contrast perfectly with McIlroy’s, the Holywood man having blitzed the field on Thursday with an opening seven-under 65 but signing for back-to-back over-par rounds on Friday and Saturday to fall off the pace.
He’s still in with a chance, of course, with scores still out there at Bay Hill, but the four-time Major champion concedes he is finding the going tough having lost his magic touch from round one.
“The course sort of turned a little bit. Especially with the crosswinds today, it was a bit harder to hit fairways. From there, if you don’t hit the fairway, it’s almost impossible to hit a green,” he explained.
“It’s so tough out there. It’s so tricky. It’s just on a knife edge, like you’re literally talking like feet. Two feet here, two feet there from 200 yards can make a huge difference in where the ball ends up.
“I turned in two-over and I thought if I can just birdie the two par-fives and get back to even par, that would be a good day. I did really well to come back from the bogey on 11 with birdies on 12 and 13, and then just the tee shot on 15 killed me.
“It’s just hard. It’s just really hard to, as I said, hit greens. When you don’t hit a green, you usually don’t get a great lie, and when you’re chipping from long rough to really firm greens, it’s hard to get it close.
“I feel like I’ve never had as many six-footers for bogeys as I’ve had today.”
McIlroy had one on the first after failing to make up-and-down from off the green, dropping an early shot, and he needed a good par save from seven-feet at the par-five sixth to avoid dropping another, before a second bogey did arrive with a failed sand save on the par-four eighth.
Despite the tough front-nine, others struggling around him meant McIlroy was still in it and after a wild drive at the par-four 11th yielded another bogey, he hauled himself right back into the thick of things with back-to-back birdies, taking advantage of the par-five 12th and then rolling in a 14-footer at the par-four 13th.
But just when it looked like his momentum was shifting, he drove the ball out of bounds on the 15th and took a double-bogey and, although he recovered with a birdie at the short par-five 16th, he would finish with back-to-back bogeys on a forgettable day.
It was anything but for McDowell, who seemed to be heading the wrong way when a birdie at the par-five fourth was followed by bogeys at the par-three seventh and par-four ninth, but on the back-nine he got motoring.
The former US Open champion hit a lovely approach to six-feet at the par-four 10th for a birdie, then backed it up with a 10-footer on the par-four 13th and a gorgeous tee shot on the par-three 14th that led to a four-foot birdie putt falling.
McDowell would then save his best for last, an incredible approach shot to a foot earning him a tap-in birdie to close and, on a course that rewards pure ball-striking more than anything, he will fancy his chances of a first title since February 2020’s Saudi International.
The men they’re chasing are Horschel and Gooch, the pair playing impressive golf in the tricky conditions to pull one shot clear of the chasing pack heading into the final day.
Horschel benefitted from a kind ruling on the 18th, getting a drop with his stance impeded by a sprinkler head and, rather than having an awkward chip from a bad lie over the back of the green, he would instead hole the putt from the fringe for a closing birdie and a one-under 71 to reach seven-under.
On the 18th, Gooch had contrasting fortunes as, sitting at eight-under and one clear on his own at the time, he would drop a shot to lose the solo lead, recording a level-par 72 consisting of four birdies and as many bogeys.
Overnight leader Hovland had his own troubles, bogeying his opening two holes and adding four more on his back-nine after a resurgence with an eagle at the par-five sixth and a birdie at the par-four eighth, a three-over 75 dropping him out of the lead but still in the mix one shot back at six-under, with Scheffler’s eagle, five birdies and three bogeys moving him to five-under.
Further down the leaderboard it was a similarly tough day for Padraig Harrington, who mixed five bogeys and a double with an eagle and two birdies in a roller-coaster three-over 75 and he lies at six-over in a share of 63rd going into Sunday’s final round.
- Full scoring HERE