On a day when Bay Hill baked out and nobody in the final few pairings wanted to sniff the lead, the field’s alpha took control early and often. Rory McIlroy shot a sizzling 6-under 66 to get in the clubhouse at 8 under and led while the leaders were making the turn. The lead didn’t hold all day, but he’s just one back going into the final 18 holes. Vegas says he’s the +185 favorite, and he should be (but more on that below). Let’s take a look at a fascinating Saturday from Bay Hill.
First place — Matthew Fitzpatrick (-9): The Englishman is looking for his first PGA Tour win, and a lights-out close on Saturday may help him get it. After birdies at Nos. 15 and 16, Fitzpatrick got up and down from nasty spots on Nos. 17 and 18 to finish his first 54 holes one clear of McIlroy. He’ll have the toughest task in golf — holding off a thoroughbred like McIlroy in the final pairing while trying to secure his first — but his pedigree is great, and I wouldn’t bet against him.
Last place — Anirban Lahiri (+7): Lahiri, who started the day one stroke back of Rory McIlroy, now trails him by 15 after firing an 80 on Saturday that included four bogeys and three doubles. It was not a great Saturday for Lahiri.
Other contenders — Rory McIlroy (-8), Matt Wallace (-7), Kevin Kisner (-7), Aaron Baddeley (-7): Interestingly there are 31 golfers at or within six of Fitzpatrick’s lead, but it feels like McIlroy is the black hole they’re all trying not to be sucked into.
Who had a great day? McIlroy’s 8-under number was later surpassed by his former Ryder Cup teammate, but he’ll play in the final pairing on Sunday because he finished first in the field in driving and from tee to green in Round 3. It’s nothing new for McIlroy at this course. He won last year and finished T4 the year before. Anything worse than a repeat trophy on Sunday will feel a bit like a disappointment for how close he’s been to winning in his first four events of 2019.
Who had a lousy day? The final pairing of Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley combined to shoot 9 over on Saturday and more or less got dropped from coverage midway through their round. Maybe we should have seen this coming (especially from Fleetwood based on the graphic below), but I did not see a best ball 71 coming from the two top guys in the field through 36 holes. A best ball 71!
Stat of the day: Players from the top eight after 36 holes — that is, the final four pairings on the course in Round 3 — were a combined 15 over on Saturday.
Shot of the day: I thought this shot from McIlroy from 161 yards out on No. 15 was absolutely filthy. It kick-started his close — three birdies in the last four holes — and could be a harbinger for Sunday. He’s made six birdies on the final four holes so far this week.
Rory moves one shot closer.
There are now 8 players 2 shots back @APInv. #QuickHits pic.twitter.com/4eseXfIBGs
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 9, 2019
One thing I loved: The greens on Saturday were like concrete. Guys couldn’t even think about getting balls close, and scores rose over par even after golfers not playing well were eliminated by the cut on Friday evening. The field average in proximity to the hole swelled to 41 feet after two straight days in the 30s on Thursday and Friday. Paul Azinger said this on the broadcast, and I agreed with him: It felt a little major championship-like. The winning score on Sunday will likely be double digits, but if it isn’t, it would be the first time since 2011 at this tournament.
What to watch on Day 4: It’s Rory against the field on Sunday. There are a number of storylines with so many players so close to the lead, but the only one that matters from a historical context as we head into the Players Championship and onto the Masters is McIlroy’s. As Justin Ray noted below, McIlroy has a chance to win his 15th PGA Tour event (in just his 155th start, a silly percentage) and put himself in a class that includes Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. I’m already fired up for the Round 4 golf.
With a win tomorrow, @McIlroyRory would reach 15 @PGATOUR wins, including 4 majors, before age 30. Since the first Masters in 1934, only 2 players have hit those marks before turning 30: @jacknicklaus and @TigerWoods.
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) March 9, 2019