Rory McIlroy keeps inching up the leaderboard at the 2015 Players Championship, but with just 18 holes to play, it will take a big effort on Sunday for him to win. The world's top-ranked player fired a 70 in the third round to bring his overall score to six under par.
There haven't been a lot of low scores at TPC Sawgrass this week, save for a couple of 65 rounds, so just breaking par in all three rounds gives you a chance to compete. McIlroy has followed that path through 54 holes by going 69-71-70.
Here's the leaderboard that McIlroy is looking up at heading into Sunday's final round:
|Rory McIlroy at 2015 Players Championship Scorecard Third Round|
|Source: PGA Tour|
Once again, McIlroy's round was marred by a lackluster front nine. That's been a theme for the young star at this event dating back to last year, as ESPN's Jason Sobel noted after the second round:
Today, McIlroy nearly hit that 37.33 average with a one-over 37 on his first nine holes that featured two bogeys and just one birdie. There does seem to be a lack of enthusiasm with the way he plays this course, something he addressed after Friday's round, via ESPN's Bob Harig:
"I was OK. I mean, I was pretty bored out there," McIlroy said. "I'm not sure how you guys felt about watching it. Just try and hit fairways, hit greens, pick off my birdies when I could."
As Brian Wacker of PGATour.com noted, all McIlroy has to do is figure out the first nine holes because everything after that has been working:
For perspective on how good McIlroy has been on the back nine through three rounds, he would actually be seven under if only those holes counted. He's one over on the front nine, including today's effort.
To put things another way, per Justin Ray of the Golf Channel, McIlroy was as close to perfect as a player could possibly get over his final nine holes on Saturday:
This course hasn't provided a lot of the risk-taking shots McIlroy can hit like they are routine, so it's possible his style just doesn't agree with the tournament. It happens to the best players, though he's still faring well for someone who has described himself as "bored."
McIlroy did have a human moment on the course. It came on the ninth hole with his ball in heavy rough; he swung the club and this happened (h/t PGA Tour):
Despite that wasted shot, McIlroy did manage to save par on the fifth hole. That may not be the silver lining he wants, but taking the positives out of a bad moment are all you can do.
This putt on No. 13, via the PGA Tour's official Twitter account, shows that McIlroy is still able to reach down to find whatever is missing in a given round:
As the tweet notes, putting has not been McIlroy's friend. He made it on the green with great regularity, but as Kyle Porter of CBS Sports noted, distance with the putter hasn't been good despite that effort on the 13th hole:
McIlroy played things safe over the next two holes before arriving at the par-five 16th. It was an opportunity to gain another stroke with a birdie, which is exactly what he did and is now within shouting distance of the lead. He had another shot to birdie No. 17 but left the putt just short of the hole, settling for par.
Even though odds are against McIlroy making an epic comeback on Sunday, it isn't improbable that he can do it. The key will be how things go on the front nine and if he's able to make something happen, as the final nine holes have provided a lot of support thus far.
Last year, McIlroy closed the Players Championship with a 66. If that happens again tomorrow, it gets him to 12 under par. The magic number at this event since 2011 has been 13 under, so don't count out the world's best player just yet.