Rory McIlroy produced a fighting finish to keep Ryder Cup team-mate Tyrrell Hatton in his crosshairs in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
he world No 1 started his day with the lead after overnight leader Matt Every followed his opening 65 with an 83 to crash to four-over.
But firm greens, thick rough and a capricious breeze made Bay Hill a Major-style test and McIlroy had to battle hard to card a one-over-par 73 that left him tied for fourth, just two shots behind Hatton and South Korea’s Sung Kang on five-under.
Hatton shot a three-under 69 and Kang a 68 to lead by a shot on seven-under from New Zealand’s Danny Lee, who carded a best-of-the-day 67.
It made keeping pace a challenge for the Holywood star, who bogeyed the short third and followed a birdie four at the sixth by dropping three shots in his next two holes.
But he showed some resilience around the turn, birdied the ninth and 12th to remain in touch, then gathered himself after missed two putts inside six feet. After failing with a four-footer for par at the 15th, he was frustrated to miss a six-footer for birdie the par-five 16th but then drained a 20-footer for a two at the 17th.
“It was one of those days just to hang in there, stay tough and as patient as possible,” he said. “I had ambitions of going out there and getting to double-digits under par and having a lead, but sometimes it doesn’t quite work out that way.”
McIlroy heads to Sawgrass next week to defend The Players but Tiger Woods will not be there as he nurses a sore back. “Back just not ready,” Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg told ESPN. “Not concerning long term, just not ready.”
Graeme McDowell suffered on his back nine in tough morning conditions, carding a two-over 74 that left him just five shots behind. He turned in one-under after following a bogey at the 12th with birdies at the 14th and the 16th.
But he limped home in 39 on the tough front nine, dropping three shots in a row from the second before following a birdie four at the sixth with another bogey at the eighth.
Pádraig Harrington’s hopes making his first PGA Tour cut for ten months evaporated when he drove out of bounds and made a triple-bogey seven at the first. He would go on to hit just one green in regulation, eventually carding a seven-over 79 to finish well off the pace on nine-over.
The European Ryder Cup captain has one eye on September, and he had no problem describing recent comments by former US captain Paul Azinger as “pretty crass”.
Azinger irked a host of European stars by referring to the European circuit as “that European Tour” when explaining that Tommy Fleetwood needed to win on the PGA Tour to prove himself.
“The comments themselves were pretty crass,” Harrington told the BBC. “They weren’t well put as points. It didn’t come across very well. It’s not like all good Americans have won in Europe or around the world.”
On the European Tour, Spain’s Jorge Campillo and England’s Andy Sullivan shot six-under 66s to hit the front in the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.
They led by a shot on 10-under-par from England’s Oliver Fisher, Frenchman Romain Langasque, The Netherlands’ Joost Luiten and Swedes Marcus Kinhult and Alexander Björk, who fired a career-low, nine-under 63.
Cormac Sharvin made the two-under cut with a stroke to spare after making six birdies in a two-under 70 in Doha.
He was tied for 48th on two-under-par, but fellow Ulsterman Jonathan Caldwell (35) missed out by two shots after a 69 as amateur Michael Young finished 12-over after a 78.
- Qatar Masters, 9.0am; Arnold Palmer Invitational, 5.30pm, both live Sky Sports