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Honda win would be bigger than McIlroy letting on

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LA QUINTA, CA - JANUARY 24: Jason Dufner plays his tee shot on the ninth hole during the final round of the CareerBuilder Challenge In Partnership With The Clinton Foundation at the TPC Stadium course at PGA West on January 24, 2016 in La Quinta, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The end of Rory McIlroy’s self-proclaimed rebuilding phase appears near, and already there is a rush to declare what a victory here at the Honda Classic would mean.

Validation that he’s working on the right things.   

Redemption for his petulant walk-off a year ago.

Confirmation that he’s the game’s most promising 20-something, that he’s a threat once more to Tiger’s reign atop the world order, that he’s the early favorite for the Masters.

Yeah, sorry, but McIlroy isn’t buying any of that. He views a potential victory as something far more basic.  

“It would be my seventh PGA Tour win,” he shrugged Saturday night. “No bigger, no smaller.”

At least that’s what he’s saying publicly.

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Secretly, his two-shot lead over Russell Henley must feel like a massive opportunity, a chance to silence all of the detractors who claimed he was foolish to overhaul his equipment and change everything that made him a two-time major champion at age 23.

Right now, though, with 18 holes to go, all he’s saying is that another victory, PGA Tour title No. 7, “would be nice.”

“If I happen to win tomorrow, I’ll go home and have a nice night and get up the next morning and go play the Seminole Pro-Member,” he said. “So it’s all good.”

Surprised by his bid to go wire-to-wire here at PGA National? You shouldn’t be. McIlroy has finished in the top 11 in seven of his last eight stroke-play events. He’s playing in the final group in his second consecutive 72-hole event. This was inevitable.  

Earlier this year he squandered chances to win in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – when he admitted to pressing too much down the stretch – but since the 2011 Masters disaster he has closed out his last four 54-hole leads.  

“I’ve been building and building toward getting my game to a level where I feel it should be,” he said, “and I’m pretty much at that point now.”

McIlroy is on the cusp of his first PGA Tour title since September 2012 after a gritty, 1-under 69 Saturday in increasingly difficult conditions at PGA National.

In the final group with Brendon de Jonge, McIlroy birdied two of his first three holes to take a four-shot lead. That advantage proved short-lived, however, after he dropped a shot on No. 6, then made a world-class bogey save on the par-3 seventh that, he said, was “one of the best up-and-downs I’ve ever had.” After double-crossing his 4-iron tee shot, his ball took a hard bounce over the green, bounding into a palmetto bush. He took an unplayable lie, played a brilliant bump-and-run through the rough short of the green, and holed a 10-foot bogey putt that felt like he had gained a shot on the field.  

At 12-under 198, he has a two-shot lead over fellow 24-year-old Henley, who was buoyed by a 150-yard hole-out on the 14th hole and a 50-foot bomb on 17.

If McIlroy says he’s at the end of a rebuilding phase, then Henley is hoping to stop the downward slide.  

Since winning in his first start as a PGA Tour member at the 2013 Sony, the former Georgia standout has recorded only a pair of top-10 finishes, and none since June.

“This game will beat you up if you let it,” he said.

Henley said he was making the game too complicated and trying to change everything that put him in the winner’s circle.

“For me,” he said, “I’ve never really thought too much about everything in my game. I just try to be athletic, and the more I can keep it simple like that, the better I’ll be.”

Sound familiar? McIlroy’s 2013 was anything but simple and uncluttered. He changed virtually every aspect of his life, both personally and professionally.

The 14-club equipment change. The embarrassing walk-off here. The management turmoil. The relationship rumors. Add it all up and it amounted to a lost year for the erstwhile Boy Wonder, whose only victory came in his penultimate start of the year, far from home, at the Australian Open.  

“It’s just about trying to build yourself back up,” he said. “I feel like I’m much more experienced, I’m much wiser sitting here at 24. I’ve experienced a lot, and if it ever happens again, I’ll know how to deal with it better.

“I’m in a phase now where I’m just trying to win golf tournaments again and building toward the bigger tournaments and the majors, and I feel like I’m on a good path.”

His path appears destined for another PGA Tour victory. No bigger and no smaller than that, he says, but a hugely satisfying one nonetheless.