McIlroy moves one step closer

Rory McIlroy is poised to become the new World No 1 after taking a two-shot lead at the Honda Classic on Saturday.

Rory McIlroy is poised to become the new World No 1 after taking a two-shot lead at the Honda Classic on Saturday.

McIlroy produced a four-under-par 66 at the PGA National Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens – joint best round of the day – to finish on 11 under par, two shots clear of Americans Harris English, a 22-year-old rookie who equaled Rory’s 66, and Tom Gillis, a 43-year-old self-confessed journeyman who shot a 69.

England’s Justin Rose (71) and two more Americans, Brian Harman (69) and Keegan Bradley (68), lie a further two shots back on seven under, tied for fourth place, while Masters champ Charl Schwartzel (67) and Dicky Pride (71) follow on six under.

With English and Gillis, his two closest challengers, ranked 216th and 216th respectively, McIlroy finds himself perfectly placed to unseat current No 1 Luke Donald heading into Sunday’s final round in Florida – something he only just failed to do at last week’s World Accenture Match Play Championship by losing to Hunter Mahan in the final.

McIlroy started perfectly with a hat-trick of birdies from the long third, two-putting there and then holing birdie putts of 22 and 10 feet respectively, before he stumbled briefly with consecutive bogeys at the sixth and seventh, coming up short at the former and three-putting the par-three latter.

Those dropped shots briefly gave Gillis the lead, but McIlroy rallied on the back nine, producing a three-birdie inward 32 – though not before a couple of crucial par saves.

Needing to take one of his shoes and socks off to put one foot in the water for his approach shot to the eighth, he promply holed a 33-footer for his par, before holing another lengthy par putt of 28 feet at the ninth.

The first of his three back-nine birdies came at the 11th. He holed from five feet and then rescued a further par from 33 feet again on the next.

A nine-iron to five feet at the 15th led to him regaining top spot on his own when Gillis failed to get up and down from sand there.

In a spot of bother again at the 18th, bunkered in two at the par-five, he was left with 12 feet for his birdie after his wedge and holed it to finish a rollercoaster round in style.

“This is where I want to be,” said McIlroy. “This is why I play golf, to put myself in contention to win tournaments and try to become the best player in the world.”

Asked if he had learnt anything from last week he said: “It’s a different format and the approach is slightly different.

“I didn’t have as much time to think about it there because I went straight from the semi-final (a win over Lee Westwood) into the final.

“I’ve just got to try to approach it like any other tournament.”

Further down the field, Tiger Woods carded a two-under 69 to lie in 18th place on two under, one shot ahead of playing partner (for the third day running) Lee Westwood, who shot a level-par 70.

Woods briefly threatened to produce a special round after birdies at the third, fourth and seventh, but played the final 11 holes in one over par.

“I putted great and I was close to putting a low one up there,” he said. “I felt like I could post five under par for the day or something like that and get myself within reach.”

On McIlroy’s potential rise to the top of the rankings, Woods said: “I played with him in Abu Dhabi the first two days [last month]. He’s still learning.

“He’s developed a lot, but also he’s got a lot to learn too, which anyone that age does.”

The possibility of thunderstorms on Sunday afternoon has prompted tournament organisers to move tee times forward. Winds as high as 25 mph were also expected.