PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Despite a two-hole stumble on the front nine, Rory McIlroy never lost his grip on the lead during Saturday's third round of the Honda Classic.
Now, with a host of players on his tail and Mother Nature expected to whip up some difficult decisions, McIlroy will need all he's got to hold on for his second Honda title in three years.
McIlroy, who moved to No. 1 in the world with a win here in 2012, fired a 1-under-par 69 on the Champions Course at PGA National Resort and Spa to move to 13 under through 54 holes, two shots in front of Russell Henley (68).
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Russell Knox (68) is three back with Jhonattan Vegas (66) four back. Four plays are five back, including Luke Donald (68) and Keegan Bradley (66). World No. 1 Tiger Woods fired his best round of the year – 65 – to move within seven shots of McIlroy.
After a mostly woeful 2013, McIlroy looks like he did when he rolled to five wins in 2012. He started finding his form late last year when he got in tune with his new equipment and has six top-10s in his last nine starts, including a win in the Australian Open.
"I stayed very patient," said McIlroy, who made bogeys on the 6th and 7th holes but only made one more after that. "That was a key out there for me today. I didn't panic. I missed a couple of short putts that I had not missed over the first couple of days. I just stayed nice and calm and patient and knew that I was going to give myself plenty of chances for birdies.
"I think this golf course is all about patience, especially with the conditions the way they are. So I need to just keep that mind-set for the last 18 holes."
At one point, McIlroy, who is No. 8 in the world, had a three-shot lead and looked to increase it to four before he stumbled. Still, with his game firing on all cylinders, he never wavered and knew he never lost the lead.
"It could have been bigger," McIlroy said of his lead. "But the fact is, I'm still in the lead of the golf tournament, and I can't be disappointed with that, and especially with the way I played. I feel like I played really solid today. I didn't do much wrong, and I'm feeling comfortable enough in my game that a two-shot lead is a great position to be in going into tomorrow.
" … This golf course is all about not making mistakes. I made three bogeys out there today. I guess that is acceptable in the conditions, but I'd like to go out there (Sunday) try and limit the mistakes as much as I can."