Thursday 27 April 2017

Rory McIlroy ready for world No 1 shoot-out as Justin Thomas leads way at World Golf Championship in Mexico

Rory McIlroy plays his shot from the 18th tee during the third round of the WGC - Mexico Championship golf tournament at Club de Golf Chapultepec.
Rory McIlroy plays his shot from the 18th tee during the third round of the WGC - Mexico Championship golf tournament at Club de Golf Chapultepec.

James Corrigan

A certain sitting US President warned the golf authorities that they should take out “good kidnapping insurance” when they dared to switch this World Golf Championship event to Mexico from his own course in Miami.

Well, to have possession of this leaderboard, every promoter – yes, including Donald Trump – would pay a rich ransom.

Consider this for a cast list. Justin Thomas, the American with three wins already this season leads the way on 12-under. On 11-under is the world No 1, Dustin Johnson, whose 66 was only marred by a bogey on the 16th when his ball stayed up a tree.

On 10-under is Phil Mickelson, who with a ridiculous 68 probably produced the most “Phil Mickelson” round in history. And on the same mark is Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irishman playing his first competitive event in two months because of a rib injury. McIlroy went out with a two-shot advantage and after a 70 now has a two-shot deficit.  McIlroy was down but far from out and will still fancy himself in Sunday’s torrid shootout.

And then there is Lee Westwood, in fifth on nine-under, having skipped through the back nine in a five-under 31 for a 66. Nobody has played more World Golf Championships than the 43-year-old – 56 – and, obviously, nobody would be more deserving than the evergreen Englishman.

“You have the best in the world up there; youngsters; more experienced players; big-hitters’ great putters; everything,” he said. “It is testament to this course, which provides so many options. Can I do it? Ask me tomorrow night. Put it this way, if you told me that Nottingham Forest would have beaten Brighton 3-0 in the Championship today, I would have laughed at you.”

Yes, the predominantly US audience did not have a clue what the former world No 1 was talking about, but then this was the perfect day to scratch the head and wonder. First there was Jordan Spieth coming from the also-ran backwaters to put himself in which a sniff with a 63. He probably would require the same again to win his second title of the season and establish himself an even bigger favourite for next months’ Masters.

It was his best friend, Thomas, who stole the lead and the headline moment. His hole-in-one on the 232-yard 13th was the highlight of this week so far, a week that has easily been the best of the golfing year so far. Standing two off Johnson’s lead, the 23-year-old, who hurtled into the world’s top 10 by winning back-to-back tournaments in Hawaii in January, watched in amazement as his ball took one almighty bounce - then performed its slam dunk.

If Thomas’s celebration was memorable then it was nothing to the Mexican marshal carrying the “Quiet Please” sign nearby. He used it to orchestrate the thrillingly-large crowd into a yet more raucous frenzy.

Before then, McIlroy and Johnson were slugging it out at the top, with the battle for the world No 1 spot on the line. McIlroy needs to win and for Johnson to finish worse than outright fourth; a fascinating scenario, indeed. Except this Saturday was one of those classic re-runs of the Mickelson show, which was impossible to ignore.

The 47-year-old was going through his highlight reel, saving pars from under bushes, making birdies from behind entire forests. There will be a few raised eyebrows as he had to get three rulings for drops – and they all went in his favour, including one when he managed to find a sprinkler head in the middle of a six-foot wide shrub. How Mickelson shot three-under, including a bogey on the last, will confound everyone, and every piece of foliage, that witnessed it.

Also in the mix is the brilliant young Spaniard Jon Rahm, on nine-under, and two young Englishmen in Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood on eight-under. They should all feel proud to be part of a quite wonderful production. Without a Trump helicopter in sight.

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