Players Championship 2019: Rory McIlroy one off the lead, but the better news is he’s not in final pairing

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Good news for Rory McIlroy. He doesn’t have to worry about being in the final group on Sunday at the Players Championship.

The 29-year-old Northern Irishman — winless in his last nine times playing in the last group — is tied for second at 14 under with Tommy Fleetwood a stroke back of leader Jon Rahm. Instead, he will play in the penultimate pairing at TPC Sawgrass thanks to Fleetwood having teed off first in their pairing on Saturday.

Perhaps the better news for McIlroy was that it was only Saturday. After a respectable but at-times shaky two-under 70 in the third round, he took just five questions from the media and headed to the range. He had work to do.

McIlroy’s performance on the par-5s was again something he struggled with in the third round, finishing the four of them in a combined even par. It was a continuing and concerning issue from his final round last week at Bay Hill, where he played those holes in just one under on Sunday despite having irons into each of them.

“It’s definitely an area tomorrow that I need to really concentrate on and try to make the most of those holes, because it’s getting difficult out there,” McIlroy said. “Definitely with the conditions the way they might be tomorrow, you’ve got to take advantage of the easier holes.”

He’ll certainly need a better start than he had on Saturday. McIlroy blew his second shot on the second hole right of the green, then pitched over the putting surface and failed to get up and down, missing a 15-footer for par.

Then on the par-5 16th — the easiest hole on the course — he pulled his tee shot onto a cart path, got relief and hammered a low, hooking long iron up the fairway, over the green and into the water. He managed to save par but it was another missed opportunity.

“It just came out so hot,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t think twice about taking it on.”

It didn’t help, either, that after driving the ball well the first two rounds, he hit just four fairways on Saturday.

“Maybe just getting ahead of it a little bit,” McIlroy said. “I missed a few to the right, so maybe just getting a little quick from the top. Probably something very simple.”

More complicated of course have been his woes on Sundays.

Last week, McIlroy shot a pedestrian even-par 72 playing in the final group at Bay Hill, where he tied for sixth.

So what awaits the four-time major champ as he tries to end a drought in which he has just one win in the last 18 months?

“In a good position, not the best position I could be in,” McIlroy said. “But I thought after the start today that to play the last 16 holes in four-under par with no bogeys was a good effort.

“I showed some character out there, showed some grit.”

Now all that remains is doing so on Sunday, which just happens to be St. Patrick’s Day.

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