But just like that, it was gone.
After back-to-back birdies pulled him within one shot of the lead, McIlroy’s round and tournament were derailed by a string of three straight bogeys on the back nine.
“Everything was going really well for 13 holes,” McIlroy said. “Got myself right into the tournament, and then three bogeys in quick succession.”
McIlroy chipped in for birdie on No. 9, then reached 12 under following birdies on Nos. 12 and 13. His issues began when he failed to get up-and-down at No. 14, and McIlroy followed by three-putting from inside 34 feet on No. 15. He claimed after the round that his 3-foot par putt hit a spike mark.
The coup de grace came at the par-5 16th, the easiest hole on the course and one that McIlroy had already bogeyed in the opening round. It played to an average of 4.071 during Round 3, and one out of every seven players walked away with an eagle.
McIlroy put his tee shot in the bunker, sailed his approach right of the green, flubbed a chip and walked away with a 6.
“Just a messy three holes,” he said.
At 9-under 207, he now trails Henrik Stenson by seven shots entering what will likely be his final competitive round before the Masters. Despite his position in the standings, McIlroy remains pleased with his decision to tee it up at Bay Hill for the first time.
“Competitive golf is always good, just to sort of highlight what you still need to work on,” he said. “There’s times when I’m really comfortable, and then times that I’m still not too comfortable. So it’s highlighted a couple of different things, but for the most part I’ve got what I want out of it.”
Though McIlroy now trails 11 players, including most notably the No. 3-ranked player in the world, he still holds out slim hope for a final-round rally.
“If I shoot 30, 31 on the front nine I can get myself back into it,” he said. “You never know. Just try and finish the tournament off as best I can tomorrow.”