McIlroy finishes strongly to set up fantastic chance for Bay Hill glory
Henrik Stenson leads the way in Florida
Sky Sports Golf, 4.30pm Sunday
Story so far
Henrik Stenson edged clear at the top of the Bay Hill leaderboard in the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a 71 enough to give the Swede a one-shot advantage over Bryson DeChambeau.
Stenson, 7-4 favourite at the halfway stage of the Florida event, shortened slightly to 13-8, but he will be looking over his shoulder at some top-class pursuers who closed the gap on him on Saturday. The ante-post 30-1 chance must repel Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods, among others, over the closing 18 holes.
McIlroy is alone in third place, a strong finish putting the former world number one only two shots behind, while Rose also carded a third-round 67 to share fourth place. Fowler shares sixth spot, a further shot behind, while eight-times Bay Hill champion Woods has a five-shot Sunday deficit to overturn.
Anyone from Woods upwards will still have high hopes of contending for the title. The 14-time Major champ, runner-up in the Valspar Championship last Sunday, can be backed at 22-1 to go one better seven days later.
-12 Henrik Stenson
-11 Bryson DeChambeau
-10 Rory McIlroy
-9 Justin Rose, Ryan Moore
-8 Charley Hoffman, Rickie Fowler, Talor Gooch, Byeong Hun An
-7 Grayson Murray, Tiger Woods, Bud Cauley, Patrick Reed
13-8 H Stenson, 100-30 R McIlroy, 7 B DeChambeau, 8 J Rose, 16 R Fowler, 20 R Moore, 22 T Woods, 40 C Hoffman, B H An, 50 P Reed, 80 T Gooch, 125 bar
Henrik Stenson is a proven champion who has won six times on the US Tour, but the 41-year-old did not sound confident about converting his Bay Hill advantage when interviewed after round three.
Stenson, who missed the cut by three shots last week at the Valspar Championship, explained how he has been working on his swing and that comfort levels go up and down. He noted the quality of the players just behind him on the leaderboard and how difficult it would be to get the job done. There was hope in his voice, rather than expectation, which is understandable considering he has not beaten an elite field since the 2016 Open.
Stenson won the low-grade Wyndham Championship last August, but the Arnold Palmer is several notches above that in terms of field quality. The Swede was in a fantastic position at the halfway stage on Friday night, having kicked clear of his main Bay Hill rivals, but a humdrum third round has piled pressure on his shoulders.
Stenson has got progressively worse as the week has gone on. He was using a magic wand as a putter on Thursday, needing it just 20 times in his first-round 64, then took control of the tournament with a Friday 69. He lost his putting touch in round three, though, and did not swing with as much freedom.
Stenson has already blown two excellent chances to win this title. He lost a duel to Matt Every in 2015, then the following year Stenson reached 11 under par through two rounds, before finishing on 14 under par and in third place. That history of failure down the stretch at Bay Hill must be factored into calculations.
Bryson DeChambeau is probably not the man to topple the leader. DeChambeau appeared to be stepping up a gear with a brilliant birdie at the 14th in round three. His tail was up and his swing seemed to have clicked into gear, but then he hacked his way to the clubhouse in one-over-par from the 15th tee. DeChambeau is only 24 and has plenty of time on his side, but the quirky Californian is increasingly looking like a good, but not great, US Tour player.
By far the biggest danger to Stenson is arguably Rory McIlroy, who can take huge encouragement from the way he has moved into third place. McIlroy almost produced a bogey-free round on Thursday, but tugged his drive out of bounds at the 18th hole to close with a disappointing double. A steady 70 followed his opening 69, then the Northern Irishman played his best golf of the week in round three.
McIlroy was unlucky with his approach to the par-five sixth hole – a bounce forward would have left a close eagle putt, but his ball bounced backwards into the rocks – but he recovered manfully from that setback and covered his final seven holes in four under par.
McIlroy is putting superbly and must be thrilled with his performance on the greens. A chat with putting guru Brad Faxon last week seems to have helped loosen up the stroke. When McIlroy putts well, he often adds silverware to his enormous mantelpiece, and it has been a joy to watch the quality of his flat-stick work over the first three days.
McIlroy was the Racing Post Sport pre-tournament headline selection at 18-1 and taking the chance that the former world number one would return to his imperious best at a suitable venue could be paying off. This looks a fantastic opportunity for the four-times Major champ. He closed with a magnificent birdie at the difficult 18th – two perfect shots followed by a tap-in – and can approach the final round in much more positive mood than the pair ahead of him.
There are obviously serious threats behind McIlroy. Justin Rose is full of form and confidence, Rickie Fowler is always capable of a Sunday flourish, while Byeong Hun An, Woods, and Patrick Reed are all close enough and good enough to have title aspirations.
Those starting behind the increasingly confident McIlroy have little margin for error, though, and the powerhouse can butcher the four par-fives to set up Bay Hill glory and kickstart his season. If he carries his round-three ball-striking form to Sunday and his putter remains hot, McIlroy will be tough to beat in the expected perfect weather.
Final-round twoball punters are pointed towards Sam Horsfield, who has grown more comfortable as the week has worn on and fired a superb third-round 68. The young Englishman is bursting with potential and can finish his Bay Hill debut in style. The 6-5 that Horsfield defeats William McGirt in the 4.30pm twoball looks generous.
2pts 6-5 Betfair, Coral, Ladbrokes, Power
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