By Pete Pappas
GolfWRX Staff Writer
Three years ago at the 2009 Honda Classic, Rory McIlroy met his idol Jack Nicklaus. It was at the time only McIlroy’s second ever appearance on the PGA Tour. But Jack knew immediately this young Northern Irishman was special. McIlroy had, in Jack’s words, “moxie”.
One year later, again in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Jack and McIlroy would rendezvous before the 2010 Honda Classic at PGA National. But this time Jack did a bit more than just say hello. This time Jack took McIlroy aside and gave him an intensive, face to face, crash-course lesson in “how to be a major champion.” And the dividend that followed was a 2011 U.S. Open Championship for McIlroy.
Fast forward to day three of the 2012 Honda Classic. McIlroy shot a low round, 4-under 66 on Saturday, good enough for a two-stroke lead heading into Sunday. And although the PGA Tour has yet to crown a 54-hole leader as tournament champion this season, McIlroy looks to be the odds on favorite to end that dubious streak.
A win on Sunday, however, will be much more significant than merely being McIlroy’s third career PGA Tour victory. It will mean the 22-year old from Holywood would seize the throne of golf’s World No. 1 ranking away from Luke Donald.
And in the process, on the same course where McIlroy first became friends with Nicklaus, golf’s most prestigious major championship winner of all time, a win may usher in a new era of greatness for professional golf. Usher in the much anticipated Rory McIlroy-Era.
“This is why I play golf,” McIlroy said. “To put myself in contention to win tournaments and try to become the best player in the world.”
McIlroy will be grouped on Sunday with Tom Gillis and Harris English, both of whom are two strokes behind McIlroy. To his credit, English matched McIlroy with a low round, 4-under 66 on Saturday. And Gillis also managed to stay close thanks to some crafty work with the flatstick. Gillis made more putts of 20-feet or longer on Saturday than he’s made all season long, which led one NBC commentator to dub him, “Mr. Par Saver.”
But does anyone really think the No. 212 ranked player in the world (English), or the No. 269 ranked player in the world (Gillis) have what it takes to leap past McIlroy? Or that they’ll be the fortuitous benefactors of another McIlroy final round meltdown like at the 2011 Masters?
English is playing in only his sixth career PGA Tour event, and he’ll likely suffer the agony of rookie inexperience far sooner than the certain torture he’ll also become acquainted with as he negotiates his way through “The Bear Trap” (holes No. 15, No. 16, and No. 17) to finish the day.
Gillis on the other hand has plenty of experience. In fact, he’s been playing golf almost as long as McIlroy’s been alive. And to his credit, he has an impressive career best third-place finish at the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am.
But like English, Gillis finds himself in unknown territory, under the oppressive, baking spotlight of a final pairing with someone who is fiercely determined to become the No. 1 ranked player in the world.
Greater men have wilted under less stressful scenarios. And McIlroy speaks with the maturity of someone who’s been there, done that.
“I’ve just got to approach this like any other tournament and try and go out there and win tomorrow, McIlroy said. “That’s all I can focus on.”
Players with better chances of overtaking McIlroy might be major championship winners Keegan Bradley (2012 PGA Championship winner), who shot a two-under 68 on Saturday, and at 7-under overall, is four shots back, tied for fourth place. Or Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters Champion), who shot a 3-under 67 on Saturday, and at six-under overall, is five shots back, tied for sixth place.
Also four off the lead and tied for fourth-place are Justin Rose, who shot one-over, 71, and Brian Harmon, who shot a one-under 69.
You Talkin’ To Me?
Johnny Miller had the best line of the day. After McIlroy hit a nearly perfect 9 iron into the green at No. 15 (which he went on to birdie), Miller said, “That shows why he’ll be the next great player on tour. But tomorrow may be a different story.” OUCH! Miller obviously was referring to McIlroy’s 2011 Augusta meltdown, but come on Johnny! You barely had time to breath between lavishing him with praise and then tarring him in feathers.
Leave The Gun, Take The Canoli
Everyone has days like you had today Justin Rose. Take it to heart; you did well to escape at just a one-over 71. Rose shared the midway lead with Gillis before play began on Saturday, but was all over the place with his iron play, and missed a birdie putt on No. 18 that most viewing thought he’d sink. Still, Rose is only four strokes back. And if it’s true what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, then Sunday might be an open invitation for Rose to come strong and steal away a victory.
Say Hello To My Little Friend
McIlroy crushed his drive 320 yards on No. 18, as if to say upon leaving the Bear Trap, “trap this!”
The Luck Of The Irish
Fellow Northern Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington didn’t fare quite as well as their countryman McIlroy. McDowell shot a one-under 69, and is seven strokes off the lead, while Harrington shot a two-over 72, to slide back 11 strokes off the lead.
The likelihood of severe thunderstorms tomorrow has caused tournament organizers to move all tee-times forward. Winds are expected to gust as high as 25 mph.
Jack Nicklaus redesigned Holes No, 15, No. 16, and No. 17, in 1990, when it was given the infamous nickname “The Bear Trap” (No. 17 has caused more three-putts for golfers than any other hole at PGA National).
Tiger Woods was a non-factor on Saturday, finishing with a one-under 69, nine strokes behind the leader and tied for 18th place. Also tied with Tiger are Ernie Els, Ricky Fowler, Mark Wilson, and Fredrik Jacobson. Woods playing partner Lee Westwood carded three bogeys Saturday to finish even-par 70 on the day, and is 10 shots behind McIlroy overall.
Coverage resumes Sunday at 1 p.m. EST on GolfChannel, and switches over to NBC from 3-6 p.m.