Rory McIlroy is 18 holes away from his first PGA Tour win in 18 months and a chance to show the world he is back on his game.
He began strong at the Honda Classic on Saturday, avoided a big number with a brilliant bogey in the middle and took on the wind and water on the 16th hole for a final birdie that gave him a 1-under 69 in the toughest conditions and a two-shot lead over Russell Henley (68) at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
"I've been building and building toward getting my game to a level where I feel it should be," he said. "And I'm pretty much at that point now."
McIlroy might have saved his day with a bogey on the par-3 seventh. He took a penalty drop from under a palmetto bush and faced a shot off the pine straw across 20 yards of rough to an elevated green with the pin toward the back right. The shot came off perfectly, and he holed the 8-foot bogey putt.
"It was one of the best up-and-downs I've ever had," said McIlroy, who was at 12-under 198.
Asked about the importance of winning on a major tour for the first time since the World Tour Championship in Dubai at the end of 2012 and the first time since the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick (Ind.) in 2012 on the PGA Tour, he grappled for the right answer.
"It would be nice. It would be my seventh PGA Tour win," McIlroy said. "That's what it is. No bigger, no smaller."
Russell Knox had a 68 and was three strokes behind, while Jhonattan Vegas had a 66 and was another stroke back.
Tiger Woods matched the low round of the day. He was among five players who shot 65, all before the leaders teed off and the wind kicked into gear, but it was enough to move the No. 1 player 49 spots up the leader board and into a tie for 17th.
Even so, he was seven shots behind. Woods has never won a PGA Tour event when trailing by more than five shots entering the last round.
"Today was a positive day," he said after his lowest score in 10 rounds this year. "Hit the ball well and made some putts and got myself back in the hunt."
LPGA: Karrie Webb had three key birdies on the back nine and held on to a one-shot lead at the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore. Webb, the 2011 champion, shot a 2-under 70 to move to 11-under 205. Runner-up Angela Stafford, the 2012 winner, matched Webb birdie-for-birdie over the final five holes to shoot a 69.
Paula Creamer (69) was at 209, while Michelle Wie (69) was at 213.