Rory McIlroy is going to need the luck of the Irish if he is to overcome Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm as he bids to capture the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on St Patrick’s Day.
Rahm stormed his way to the top of the third-round leaderboard after posting a 2019 tournament best eight-under par 64 to finish at 15-under par.
The 2018 Irish Open winner was two-under for his outward half but ignited the fireworks over the inward nine thanks to an 11th hole eagle, where the world No. 10 sent his 242-yard 4-iron second shot to just three-feet. Four further birdies saw the 24-year old Rahm zone in on a third PGA Tour title, a seventh worldwide and a first since he muscled his way to a four shot victory last December in the Hero World Challenge.
“The last time I played this well was at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas – very similar to this, both the Friday round and the Sunday round.,” he said.
“It was two days where I hit it really, really well tee to green.”In contrast, McIlroy and Fleetwood could do no better than a pair of 70s to end their rounds at 14-under par.
The pair started horribly with McIlroy moving a shot clear of his victorious Versailles Ryder Cup team-mate when Fleetwood posted a double-bogey at the first, but then McIlroy also dropped a shot in missing the green right with his approach.
McIlroy then bogeyed the second to a Fleetwood birdie and by the turn it was McIlroy at one-under and Fleetwood falling back to two-over par.
The World No. 6 moved to two-under in two-putting the par-5 11th in what would be his only birdie over the inward half while Fleetwood chipped away, grabbing birdies at 11 but also at 12, 16 and 17.
McIlroy did have the opportunity to tie Rahm at 15-under had he holed a 10-footer but his ball slid right by the hole leaving Rahm leading by one shot with 18-holes to play in the $12.5m event.
And while McIlroy will have his hands full with Rahm and Fleetwood, there are 11 players within five shots of the lead, including past Players winner Jason Day (68) in fourth place at 12-under par.
“I’m in a good position, not the best position I could be in, but I thought after the start today that to play the last 16 holes in 4-under par with no bogeys was a good effort,” reflected McIlroy.
“I just got off to a bit of a slow start. I don’t mind bogeying the 1st, that’s fine but then to bogey the 2nd hole was a little disappointing. I then showed some character out there, showed some grit. Got a few back, it would have been nice to pick up a couple in the last few holes, but I’m still right there going into tomorrow.
“I just need to keep hitting fairways and greens, and I know it is the same old cliché, and grasp the opportunities that I can present to myself then hopefully I can turn tomorrow into the best Sunday of the year so far”.