This feels like the closing round golf has been waiting for. Although predicting the outcome of tournaments is a fool’s errand, Dustin Johnson versus Rory McIlroy here carries the heavyweight billing necessary for a sport which has been dogged by negative publicity in recent times. If it does become just the two of them, nobody is likely to complain.
It is advantage Johnson, to the tune of four shots, with 18 holes to play but recent history favours McIlroy. Since 2010 no player has won more times on the PGA Tour from a trailingposition before a Sunday ball was struck. McIlroy is aiming for win number eight in that category. Johnson won this WGC in 2017; McIlroy is chasing a first success since prevailing in emphatic style at Bay Hill last March.
McIlroy’s problem on Saturday was that every time he seemed to make headway Johnson summoned a fresh spirit. A Johnson wobble at the 10th, where he took a double-bogey six, as McIlroy produced a birdie cut a five-shot lead to two. Johnson’s response was forceful; he picked up shots on his next two holes.
The Northern Irishman produced one of the shots of the tournament from under a tree and 275 yards out at the par-five 15th. Johnson, meanwhile, had pulled his approach left. Johnson’s short-game magic followed, with his glorious chip assisted by green contours finishing within tap-in range. While McIlroy missed his eagle putt, the trading of birdie fours actually felt like a win for Johnson. The American inflicted another blow on McIlroy one hole from home, courtesy of a birdie two.
Johnson’s 66 was two shots better than McIlroy’s third-day display. Sixteen under par plays 12 under par. From such a position Johnson will naturally be the favourite – but he has displayed a historic tendency to wobble if engaged in the kind of scrap McIlroy will relish.
Patrick Reed, the Masters champion, blasted himself into contention thanks to a 64. “I’m naturally an aggressive player as it is and I feel like I played pretty aggressively so far on this golf course,” Reed said. Somewhat surprisingly, he has not won since donning the Green Jacket last April. Reed is now nine under par and therefore part of the group, which also includes Cameron Smith, Sergio García and Patrick Cantlay, closest to the pair at the leaderboard’s summit. Ian Poulter’s 69 ensured he joined Kiradech Aphibarnrat at eight under.
Tiger Woods had aspirations of a final Sunday grouping when holding just a five-iron for his approach to the 15th. The 14-times major winner was eight under at that juncture. The stuff of golfing nightmares followed. Woods found a greenside bunker and was to four-putt. Three of those arrived from 4ft. The eventual double-bogey, which was followed by another dropped shot, did not end Woods’s hopes of a 19th WGC crown but he requires Sunday snookers from a position of minus six. Unusually for Woods but in what was undoubtedly an indication of his state of mind, he skipped post-round media duties.
Lee Westwood’s bid to make what would be a 19th Masters appearance received a boost courtesy of a third-round 65. Westwood started this event as the 60th ranked player in the world; the top 50 at the end of March earn an invite from Augusta National.
Jordan Spieth’s struggles, though, continue. The Texan posted a second 75 in three rounds to move to plus six for the tournament. With the Masters, previously a Spieth specialism, moving into view the scenario is ominous; his best result in this 2018-19 season is a share of 35th.