KAPALUA, Hawaii — Things are going according to plan for Rory McIlroy in his debut at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, filling him with both satisfaction and trepidation.
He is playing well despite both a relative lack of practice and his unfamiliarity with the quirky Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort. At 14-under 205, he is second alone, three behind 54-hole leader Gary Woodland, putting him in Sunday’s final pairing starting at 5:40 p.m. EST.
Having a chance to win is always the goal through three rounds of a golf tournament, and McIlroy was quite good at that last year, playing in Sunday's final group six times worldwide. What he wasn’t very good at was winning from that position. He was 0-for-6, starting in January in Dubai when he led playing partner Haotong Li by two strokes with eight holes to play but couldn’t slam the door shut. And, of course, his struggles at the Masters—when he nearly pushed his opening tee shot out of bounds and stumbled to a 74—was the most prominent and disappointing effort.
His only win came in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, giving him a berth in this winners-only event, and that triumph he achieved with a final-round 64 while playing in the penultimate pairing.
Golf is weird like that, always forcing you to confront your demons and your doubts. McIlroy, 29, of Northern Ireland, has those to deal with along with the pressure of playing under a microscope after he has so publicly declared his fealty to the American tour for much of this coming year at the expense of his home tour in Europe.
“This is a nice way to start the year,” he said after a third-round five-under 68 that was a bit disappointing because of a scoring stall over the gettable closing holes. “It’s nice to see your name up at the top of the leader board first week back out. But I honestly didn’t play much golf in the off-season. I hit a lot of balls and I practiced and I worked on a few things, but that’s obviously very different than going out there and trying to shoot a score. So very pleased with how that's went from range and feeling pretty good on the range to shooting good scores.”
As for being in the last group, well, what is he supposed to say except that he’s pleased to be in the hunt? Ranked eighth in the world, McIlroy knows he hasn’t cleared this hurdle recently. And he knows the hurdle can become a wall if it continues.
He’s not alone in this, by the way. Woodland has his own string of frustration. The Kansas native has led going into the final round six previous times in stroke-play events, but never has gone on to win. He did convert the 54-hole lead to victory in the 2013 Reno-Tahoe Open, contested using Modified Stableford scoring.
“Again, another final group is great,” McIlroy said, trying to sound positive. “Especially coming off the back of not being able to play as well as I would have liked in final groups last year. So, to get myself right back in contention and see if I've learned anything from last year and try to put that into practice is great.”
Learning is one thing. Putting it to use is another. Huge gap there.
“I just forced the issue a little bit too much, yeah. My best round of the year was Bay Hill, and I always go back to that and I should have learned from that,” he admitted. “I wasn't in the final group, but I was two behind Henrik [Stenson] going into the final day, and I was even par after six or five holes and I could have been three or four under, but I just stayed really patient and just tried to play golf and let it happen and that patience was rewarded that day. So that’s the sort of mindset I need to try to get back into.”
Interestingly, in each instance McIlroy trailed, usually by two strokes or more. And here he is again, three behind and having to fight the urge to make up the deficit before finishing off his first bottle of water. He knows down to his shoes that is the wrong approach.
“A lot can happen in 18 holes," he waxes. “I’ve been six ahead a with seven to play and just crept over the line or I’ve been five behind with nine to play and had a chance to win on the last green. So a lot can change in a final round.”
And a lot can change for McIlroy going forward, if he does the right things, hits the right shots, has the right attitude. A win would mean more than a win. It would mean beating some demons and doubts and halting a streak of futility before it becomes a very bad habit too ingrained to break.