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One round from No. 1

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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.

NOTES:

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.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

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Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions. Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off. And when he's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game. Above all else, Pete's the proud son of a courageous mom who battled pancreatic cancer much longer than anyone expected. You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas

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Tour Mash: Rahm wins in Dubai, Cook sizzles to victory

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Two more points races reached their end this weekend. The LPGA season culminated in Florida with the Race to the CME Globe, while the European Tour concluded its Race to Dubai in, where else? Dubai! The PGA Tour played its final event until the new year, in Georgia, while the Ladies European Tour played its Sanya Open in China. Before American Thanksgiving revelry and remembrance set in, it’s time for one more tour mash.

LPGA Tour: A day of twos ends in a win for Ariya

Ariya Jutanugarn birdied her final two holes to win the CME Tour Championship. She was given the opportunity to win in regulation when Lexi Thompson pushed a 2-foot putt for par at the last. Although Thompson did not win the year’s final event, she captured 2 titles of her own: Vare Trophy for low scoring average and Race To CME Globe, the season’s points race.

How Ariya Jutanugarn tasted victory

The power game has arrived on the LPGA Tour, in case you missed it. Golfers such as Lexi, Ariya and Sung Hyun Park obliterate the orb, leaving little yardage to the green. When her game is firing, Ariya Jutanugarn is unstoppable. After bogey at the first hole on Sunday, the young golfer from Thailand etched six birdies into the final 17 holes, for a second-consecutive 67. Her birdie at the last came from 23 feet, an amazing putt to hole with victory on the line. Down it went, and up went the smile of a champion.

How the rest came up just shy of a win

With eerie similarity, Lexi Thompson’s card was the flip side of Ariya’s. Thompson made six birdies over her first 17 holes, but the hiccough at the last, her only bogey on the day, dropped her to 14-under par and opened the door for Jutanugarn. Thompson was on absolute fire on Sunday, hitting all 14 fairways and using the putter 28 times. Ariya, Kim Kaufman, Michelle Wie and Suzann Pettersen stood tied atop at 10-under, heading into round 4. Pettersen’s 72, Kaufman’s 71 and Wie’s 70 were simply not enough to keep pace with those coming from behind on Sunday. Ariya, however, was up to the challenge.

European Tour: Rahm wins in Dubai and Fleetwood breathes again

For a time, it seemed as though Justin Rose would win his third consecutive event in Europe and would squeeze past Fleetwood for the season points title. The former Englishman was in the midst of the greatest scoring run of his career, while the later Englishman seemed to have little petrol left in the tank. Then the back nine on Sunday happened, and everything changed.

How Jon Rahm won the DP World Tour

Shane Lowry made 10 birdies on Sunday, but he had one bogey. Rahm had half as many birdies and zero bogeys, and that last number made the difference. The young Basque played a stellar 132 over the closing 36 holes, eclipsed only by Lowry’s 131. Rahm fearlessly navigated his way around the Jumeirah Estates course, eeking out a one-shot win over Lowry and also hard-charging Kiradech Aphibarnrat.

How the others went home trophy-less

We all want to know about Rose. four birdies on the outward 9-holes staked him to a lead, and the greatest season comeback on a major tour was nearly written. With only three bogeys in his first 63 holes, Rose proceeded to bogey 12, 14 and 16, with only a birdie at the last to bring him to 17-under. He ended up two behind Rahm, and in second place in the Race to Dubai points race. It was a glorious campaign for Rose, and cements him as world player to watch in 2018. The Englishman tied for fourth with Sergio Garcia, Dean Burmeister and Dylan Fritelli, both of South Africa, on 17-under par.

PGA Tour: Cook collects First Tour win in Georgia

Fall is a time for young aspirants to make a mark on the PGA Tour. Austin Cook followed the script, birdieing 3-of-his-final-4 holes to stretch a single-shot lead into a four-stroke triumph. J.J. Spaun, a Web.Com tour graduate in 2017, was in the mix for the second consecutive week. He played well down the stretch, and earned a runner-up finish.

How Cook caught fire

Austin Cook played a veteran front-nine, with one bogey and one birdie. None of the chasers caught him, so the Arkansas alum continued to manage his game in the fairways-greens style. On the inward half, Cook took charge, with birdies at 15, 17 and 18, to move well in front of the runner-up. With the precision of a surgeon, Cook took apart the Sea Island course in impressive fashion. After his second-round 62, many expected him to have one weak round on the weekend, but 66-67 showed the his mettle.

How the others flamed out

Spaun really didn’t flame out, not like last week, when he caught the double-bogey train. A proven winner on other tours, Spaun should win in 2018. His game was solid, mixing in more birdies than bogeys, and his second-place finish was well-earned. Brian Gay might have been more comfortable than any other golfer this week, but he was just as erratic. Case in point: back nine. From holes 13 to 18, Gay made one birdie, two eagles, two pars and one double. Still, his numbers were low enough to secure solo third, one stroke behind Spaun and two in front of the fourth-place finishers.

Ladies European Tour: Boutier sizzles on back nine for win

Celine Boutier imagined a top-10 or top-5 when the third day dawned at Yalong Bay, in China. After bogeys on holes 4 and 5, she needed to gather herself in order to preserve her standing. From this day forward, “gather herself” in the dictionary will forever show a picture of Celine Boutier. Her six-birdie finish vaulted her past all challengers, to her first European Tour victory.

How Boutier bloomed

The recent Duke University graduate posted three rounds in the 60s, the only competitor to achieve that distinction at the Sanya Open. The Frenchwoman didn’t make a bogey until the 15th hole of her second round, but she was stuck in neutral from that hole through the 9th hole on Sunday, making only pars and bogeys. Something clicked at the turn, and Boutier regained the confidence that had produced 10 birdies during the tournament’s first half.

How the others gave chase

Solar Lee was in good standing on Sunday’s outward nine. She bounced back from an opening bogey with three birdies through the 9th, and held the top spot on the leader board at 7-under. Lee reached 9-under through 13, but made bogey at 14 to drop to 8-under. Then came the blossoming of Boutier, and Lee had to be satisfied with the runner-up spot. One spot behind Lee was Valdis Thora Jonsdottir, Iceland’s reigning professional golfer, at 7-under.

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Wednesday’s Photos from The 2017 RSM Classic

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GolfWRX is live this week from The 2017 RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club — the Seaside course plays as a par 70 measuring 7,005 yards — in St. Simons Island, Georgia.

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Headlined by last week’s OHL Classic champion Patton Kizzire, and 2015 RSM Champion Kevin Kisner, this week’s field is filled with notable names including Ricky Barnes, Zac Blair, Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Harris English, Tommy Gainey, Bill Haas, Beau Hossler, Zach Johnson, Smylie Kaufman, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III, Graeme McDowell, Ollie Schniederjans, Brandt Snedeker, Hudson Swafford, Bubba Watson and others.

In last year’s RSM Classic, Mackenzie Hughes won in a five-man playoff to secure his first PGA Tour victory. He’s back in the field this year to defend his title.

Check out out photos from Sea Island G.C. below!

Wednesday’s Galleries

 

Discussion: See what GolfWRX members are saying about the photos in our forums.

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Tuesday’s Photos from the 2017 RSM Classic

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GolfWRX is live this week from The 2017 RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club — the Seaside course plays as a par 70 measuring 7,005 yards — in St. Simons Island, Georgia.

Related

Headlined by last week’s OHL Classic champion Patton Kizzire, and 2015 RSM Champion Kevin Kisner, this week’s field is filled with notable names including Ricky Barnes, Zac Blair, Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Harris English, Tommy Gainey, Bill Haas, Beau Hossler, Zach Johnson, Smylie Kaufman, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III, Graeme McDowell, Ollie Schniederjans, Brandt Snedeker, Hudson Swafford, Bubba Watson and others.

In last year’s RSM Classic, Mackenzie Hughes won in a five-man playoff to secure his first PGA Tour victory. He’s back in the field this year to defend his title.

Check out out photos from Sea Island G.C. below!

Tuesday’s Galleries

Special Galleries

 

Discussion: See what GolfWRX members are saying about the photos in our forums.

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