DORAL, Fla. -- Rory McIlroy started his third round Saturday at the Blue Monster two-and-a-half hours before the last group of Bubba Watson and Justin Rose. The No. 1 player in the world started the day 10 shots back of Watson, who was the second-round leader.
By the time the final pairing walked on the first tee, McIlroy had shot a 6-under-par 30 on the front nine. After an eagle at the par-5 10th and his seventh birdie of the day at the 12th, the 22-year-old stood just two shots back of Watson, who was 12-under. A second straight win for the Northern Irishman appeared imminent.
But then came Watson's chance to play the front nine. The 33-year-old pride of Bagdad, Fla., began his round with an eagle on the easy par-5 first hole and a birdie at the second to get to 15-under par. From there he had five more birdies and two bogeys to finish with a 5-under 67 and a three-day total of 17-under par.
After a 7-under-par 65, McIlroy stands 9-under for the tournament. On Saturday, he made up 2 shots on Watson, but heading into the final round 8 back, his chances of winning are slim.
After his round, McIlroy expressed some of his frustration at not being able to gain any substantial ground on the leaders.
"I never thought I would stand up here and say I'm disappointed with 7-under," McIlroy said, "but today is definitely one of those days.
"I would rather see the golf course harder. I feel that I play my best golf on tough golf courses. Even like last week at the Honda, minus-12, U.S. Open was a bit different, minus-16, but I like golf courses or I like setups where the winning score is between 8- and 12-under par."
Following the 2013 Cadillac Championship, the Blue Monster will undergo a redesign under the guidance of Gil Hanse, who this week won the job as the designer of the Olympic course for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. For years the 7,300-yard, par-72 Dick Wilson design was one of the longest golf courses on the PGA Tour.
With acres of water hazards, it's still a very difficult course. But for a World Golf Championship, it might not have enough teeth for the best players in the world. Since the course began hosting the WGC event in 2007, Tiger Woods' 9-under-par 278 in '07 is the highest winning total. That year, Tiger shot a final-round 73 on a day marked by high winds and rains. In 2011, Nick Watney won with a 16-under-par total.
"It's a resort golf course, and it was a tough test 15 years ago, but now it's just outdated," McIlroy said very matter-of-factly. "They definitely need to do something with it, and it's great to see that [Donald] Trump's taking over the place and he's going to do a good job with it, I'm sure."
In the near future, Hanse and Donald Trump could make the course live up to its name. Hanse has plans to double the size of some of the ponds and expand the greens. The par-5 first hole, which at 529 yards is essentially a par 4 for these players, will be lengthened to over 600 yards. The green will also be relocated behind the creek, forcing players to contend with a water hazard on their approach shots.
All week the front nine has played the easier of the two nines. On Saturday, a perfect day for scoring, the stroke average on the front was 34.425, more than a shot easier than the back nine. There have been 70 more birdies made on the front than the back.
Watson had one of the six eagles on the first hole, which also yielded 43 birdies. One of the harrowing statistics from McIlroy's 30 on the front was that he didn't birdie either one of the par 5s. Through three rounds, there have been 25 eagles at the first hole and 139 birdies.
Watson holds a 3-shot lead over Keegan Bradley and Justin Rose. But there is a large group of players at 9-under par, including Woods, Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer and Webb Simpson, who could put pressure on the leaders with birdies and eagles on the front nine. McIlroy proved this on Saturday.
Because the front side is playing so easy, Watson's lead isn't as significant if, say for example, this were the typical U.S. Open course, where he could shoot an even-par score in his final round and still win. The three-time PGA Tour winner will have to keep pace with the players in front of him, who will be lighting up the scoreboards with red numbers.
If he can answer their charges as he did Saturday with another eagle-birdie start, his chances of winning are great. When Watson tees off tomorrow at 2:40 p.m. ET with Bradley, he'll know exactly what he needs to do.
"It's definitely helpful," Watson said. "It does help me and shows me that you can do it and you've got to do it or you're going to be back of the pack."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.