PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – This is Tiger Woods’ turf now.
With Woods’ move to Jupiter Island, the Honda Classic is his hometown event.
That adds to Sunday’s intrigue with Rory McIlroy threatening to turn the final round into a parade, a victory parade to No. 1 in the world rankings that would run right through Woods’ backyard.
The statement that a new generation is officially moving out the old guard couldn’t come more poignantly.
Rolling in a final 12-foot birdie putt to close out his third round Saturday at PGA National, McIlroy took the 54-hole lead.
With a 4-under-par 66, McIlroy takes a two-shot advantage into the final round, a Sunday that will be scrambled with thunderstorms forecast in the afternoon. Tee times have been moved up in the morning, with threesomes going off the first and 10th tees beginning at 8:30 a.m. McIlroy should go off at 10:30 a.m. with 43-year-old journeyman Tom Gillis and 22-year-old Harris English.
McIlroy says Sunday is about trying to win the Honda Classic, but if he wins, there will be more to it than that. If McIlroy wins, he will ascend to No. 1 in the world at 22-years and 10-months old. That would make him the second youngest No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, second only to Woods, who was 21 years and six months old when he gained the top ranking.
Woods, by the way, is nine shots back.
“I definitely feel like I need to put it out of my mind tomorrow,” McIlroy said of the No. 1 ranking. “I need to focus on just trying to win this golf tournament. Yeah, it might be a little bit difficult. It might creep in every now and again, but if you can keep it out for the majority of the time, it’s the best thing to do.”
McIlroy isn’t assuming anything. He understands Sunday’s challenge is exponential. He doesn’t just have to beat Woods and everyone else in the field. He has to beat Jack Nicklaus, in some regard. McIlroy has to beat the substantial challenge Nicklaus laid out at PGA National’s Champion Course when Nicklaus redesigned the course.
Come Sunday, McIlroy must survive the Bear Trap, the nasty test offered through the 15th, 16th and 17th holes.
The good news is that McIlroy is thriving through there this year. We’ve seen how quickly the young man learns from his failures. We saw it when he bounced back from that Masters’ collapse last year to win the U.S. Open in a runaway in the year’s very next major.
McIlroy showed us his advanced education again in Honda’s third round.
A year after he stumbled through a Saturday at the Bear Trap with three consecutive double bogeys, with three rinsed shots in the water, McIlroy showed us what he learned. McIlroy stepped to the 15th tee and carved a 9-iron dead at a flag tucked precariously near the water, spinning his shot to a stop 5 feet from the hole. McIlroy converted the birdie chance. It’s his third birdie in the Bear Trap this week. He is 3-under through it in three rounds.
“I'm very confident with my iron play this week,” McIlroy said. “I feel like it's been really good. You just want to try and get through that without, really, any damage. If you can take three pars, then that's great. If you pick up a birdie along the way, it's a bonus.”
The galleries at PGA National loved it. McIlroy has set up a temporary base in South Florida, and the fans here are making the Northern Irishman feel at home.
At the 17th, some inquisitive fan loudly asked McIlroy what shampoo he uses. McIlroy’s bushy locks draw a lot of attention. Two fans from Toronto in his gallery are donning McIlroy wigs this week. Lexi Thompson, the 17-year-old LPGA phenom from just down the road in Coral Springs, followed McIlroy on Saturday.
“He seems unflappable,” said Dicky Pride, who played alongside McIlroy on Saturday. “Guys are yelling so much out there to him, and he just keeps in stride, just keeps going.”
McIlroy can’t get to No. 1 Sunday unless he wins, but that’s the best way for him to show those who aren’t quite convinced that he’s ready to reign. There are still questions about McIlroy’s ability to close regularly, like a No. 1 ought to close. He has won four times worldwide, but he has a ton of second-place finishes.
Woods was asked Saturday what he thought of McIlroy and his bid to become No. 1. Woods didn’t sound ready to anoint McIlroy.
“He’s still learning,” Woods said. “He has developed a lot, but, also, he has a lot to learn, too.”
If McIlroy parades to No. 1 under Woods’ nose Sunday, McIlroy will look like he’s ready to be the guy who hands out the big lessons.