PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Tiger Woods finished his round before the leaders made the turn Saturday in the Honda Classic, only this time, thousands of fans didn't head for the parking lot. They went looking for the kid who already looks the part as golf's next star.
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy put on quite a show at PGA National.
From mangled rough right of the 11th fairway, he measured up a 7-iron from 181 yards and figured it was worth the risk to take on the water in front of the green. The ball cleared the hazard by no more than a yard, and McIlroy seized on the moment by holing a 50-foot birdie from the back of the fringe.
Two par saves were equally important on the back nine, and a birdie from the front bunker on the par-5 18th gave him a 4-under 66, matching the low round of a windy afternoon and giving him a two-shot lead.
That left the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland one round away from becoming the second-youngest player behind Woods to reach No. 1 in the world. He would have to win the Honda Classic to replace Luke Donald atop the ranking.
"I definitely feel like I need to put it out of my mind tomorrow," McIlroy said. "I need to focus on just trying to win this golf tournament. It might be a little difficult."
McIlroy was in a similar spot last week when he reached the final of the Match Play Championship, knowing a win would make him No. 1. Only this time, there is more than Hunter Mahan in this way.
McIlroy, at 11-under 199, had a two-shot lead over 22-year-old rookie Harris English (66) and 43-year-old Tom Gillis (69). Seven players were within five shots of the lead, a group that includes PGA champion Keegan Bradley and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
The difference from last week?
"I wasn't standing up 2 up on the first tee in the final," McIlroy said, smiling.
He also realizes that it's important not to take a match-play mentality into stroke play, especially with an early start because of approaching storms, with birdies and bogeys around every corner.
Even so, McIlroy is getting accustomed to the pressure, and the scrutiny. Thousands of fans lining every fairway and surrounding every green were cheering him on, and one fan even asked him on the 17th tee what kind of shampoo he uses on those curly brown locks.
"When you get yourself into positions in tournaments like his, it's not just the golf you have to deal with," McIlroy said. "It's everything else that goes on outside that. That's something I feel like I'm a lot more comfortable with. I feel like a better player all around."
Woods finally made a few putts, but not nearly enough to keep pace with everyone else. He went the last 11 holes without a birdie and had to settle for a 69, leaving him nine shots behind.
"I was close to putting a low one up there today," Woods said. "I felt like it could be had, I could make a run and post 5-under par for the day or something like that and get myself within reach. Right now, Rory is playing some great golf."
English, who won on the Nationwide Tour last year while still an amateur, made a 10-foot par save on the 17th and finished with a 66. He will be in the final group, a rare occasion when McIlroy will be playing with someone his own age with a tournament on the line.
They will be joined by Gillis, a journeyman who turned pro a year after McIlroy and English were born. Gillis had the lead to himself on the back nine until a bogey on the par-3 15th. He had a 69.
"It's nice to have the lead going into tomorrow," he said. "I have to try to focus on what I've been trying to do all week, which is hit fairways and hit greens and stay in the present, and not think about everything that could happen.
"I've just got to go out there and try to put a good number on the board."
The wind was at its strongest, though not too severe and the tees were moved forward on the par 3s over the water because of the dangerous front hole locations.
That's where McIlroy was at his best.
He hit 8-iron at the middle of the green on No. 5 with a draw that held up against the wind to 10 feet and made one of only 10 birdies on the day. On the 15th hole, the start of PGA National's famous finish, McIlroy hit 9-iron to just outside 5 feet, the closest anyone got in the third round.
There also was a bonus birdie on the par-4 11th. After making the long putt from the fringe, NBC Sports reporter Roger Maltbie walked by on the way to the 12th tee and said to him, "Really?"
McIlroy tried to contain a smile.
Despite his six birdies, his two key shots were for par. From the right rough on the 13th, the best he could manage was to hit into a front bunker, some 30 yards short of the flag. McIlroy nearly holed the shot to escape with par, and then he made an 8-footer for par on the next hole.
"They were two crucial holes today," he said.
English is showing that his win last summer on the Nationwide Tour was not an accident. He breezed through Q-school in December and has yet to miss a cut all year, though he has not finished better than a tie for 15th in the Phoenix Open.
Even so, he is polished, humble and looks capable of winning, even against a player whom everyone is ready to crown as No. 1. English is among them, smiling when asked about playing a 22-year-old on the verge of going atop the world ranking.
"Rory is awesome," English said. "I haven't had a chance to meet him yet, but I've definitely watched him play the last couple of years. He's got a great game and he deserves. I think he's the best player in the world right now, hands down, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow. He's very impressive."
Bradley had a 68 and was in the group at 7-under 203 with Brian Harman (69) and Justin Rose (71). Schwartzel wasted a good start with a double bogey on the 11th hole, but still had a 67 and was five shots behind.
Gillis is somewhat of a wild card. Behind that self-deprecating humor, developed from toiling in 26 countries in a hardscrabble career, is a guy who has been around too long to be intimidated by much, even someone of McIlroy's ability.
"I wish I could have got a couple out at the end to get a little closer to Rory," Gillis said. "He's not the type of guy you want to spot two shots to. But anything can happen on this golf course — anything. So we'll just add them up tomorrow."