Tuesday 26 September 2017

Zach Johnson gives Rory McIlroy lesson in scoring to take share of lead in Akron

Belgium's Thomas Pieters surged into the lead on day three in Akron
Belgium's Thomas Pieters surged into the lead on day three in Akron

Two-time major winner Zach Johnson gave playing partner Rory McIlroy a lesson in scoring to claim a share of the lead heading into the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron.

Johnson was often 50 yards behind McIlroy off the tee at Firestone Country Club, but carded a 65 to the Northern Irishman's 68 to finish nine under par alongside Belgium's Thomas Pieters.

Australia's Scott Hend is a shot off the lead after a superb 63, with world number three Hideki Matsuyama a stroke further back and McIlroy on six under with American Charley Hoffman and Canada's Adam Hadwin.

" It could have been a lot better," McIlroy told Sky Sports after a round containing four birdies and two bogeys.

" I put myself in good positions out there and had some great chances coming in the last six holes and didn't convert any of them.

"I could have been a few closer to the lead but still feel with the way I'm playing I have a good shot going into tomorrow."

McIlroy who won the event in 2014 but was unable to defend his title the following year due to injury, is playing his first event since splitting from long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald, with his best man Harry Diamond on the bag.

" I feel great about my game," the 28-year-old added. "My driving's good, my iron play has improved each and every day.

"It's just a matter of doing it all over again tomorrow, seeing a few more putts drop and putting a bit of pressure on the leaders and we'll see what happens."

Johnson, who won the Masters in 2007 and the 2015 Open Championship at St Andrews, carded eight birdies and three bogeys in his 65 to briefly take the outright lead, until Pieters also birdied the last.

"I f you hit the fairway here you've got a chance," Johnson said. "The greens are receptive so you can be aggressive when you hit the fairways and I hit a lot of fairways.

" I hit a lot of good drives out there and it was humbling, but it always is with Rory and I'm used to it. I've played with him countless times, it's nothing out of the ordinary."

Pieters began the third round two shots off the lead held by US PGA champion Jimmy Walker, but stormed into a three-shot lead with five birdies in his first eight holes.

After a 330-yard drive helped set up a birdie from eight feet on the first, Pieters hooked his drive on the par-five second so far off line that it finished in the middle of the third fairway.

But from 250 yards away the big-hitting Belgian fired his approach onto the green to set up a two-putt birdie, before almost spinning his approach to the third back into the hole.

Pieters, who won a record four points on his Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine last year after being given a wild card by European captain Darren Clarke, then birdied the fifth and eighth before dropping his first shot of the day on the ninth.

The 25-year-old responded immediately with another birdie on the 10th and although he bogeyed the 13th, 14th and 17th, birdies on the 16th and 18th completed an eventful 66.

"Anywhere I have a chance to win I'll definitely take it," said Pieters, who has won three times on the European Tour. "All I want is a chance to be in contention on Sunday afternoon and we'll see what happens."

Walker, who will defend his US PGA title at Quail Hollow next week, was six over par for the front nine before birdies on the 15th and 16th salvaged a 74 to leave him six off the pace on three under.

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