AKRON — Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy have become friends more by location than youth. They live near each other in South Florida and said they spent last weekend practicing together at The Bear’s Club.
Today at Firestone will be the eighth time this year they play together in a tournament, and the number grows next week when they play the opening two rounds with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship.
But this is the first time a trophy is at stake.
Thomas pulled away from the pack with five birdies in the middle of his round Saturday for a 3-under 67, giving him a three-shot lead over McIlroy and Ian Poulter going into the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational.
“We’ve played together a lot in tournaments, but never in this kind of situation,” Thomas said.
McIlroy played bogey-free on a Firestone course that finally started to get firm, atoning for a few missed birdie chances with key par putts. He already has won at Bay Hill this year, though he felt he should have won more. He has been runner-up three times, most recently at the British Open two weeks ago.
“I played well enough to win a few times this year and I only got over the line once,” McIlroy said. “Tomorrow is a great opportunity to try and win again. I’ll need a good round. I’m still a few behind. But, yeah, I’m getting a little sick of the second places.”
McIlroy made up three shots in the final round in 2014 when he rallied to beat Sergio Garcia at Firestone. It might be a taller order to take on Thomas, who already has won twice this season and appears to have found his touch with the putter.
Starting with a pitching wedge from 129 yards into the breeze to 6 feet at No. 6, Thomas made birdie on every other hole through the 14th to pull away.
No one could keep pace with Thomas, least of all Tiger Woods.
Starting the third round Saturday five shots behind, Woods didn’t make a birdie until a 12-foot putt on the 12th hole, and he didn’t make another. He wound up with a 73, leaving him 11 shots back and ending his streak of 10 straight rounds at par or better dating to the U.S. Open.
“It was very similar to the first day,” Woods said. “Wasn’t very sharp that first day, but I made everything. So today was about the same, and I didn’t make anything.”
That wasn’t a problem for Thomas, whose six birdies included a chip-in from 30 feet behind the green on the par-3 12th.
He was at 14-under 196.
Thomas fell behind early with two bogeys in three holes, and a 10-foot par save in between from behind the fourth green kept him from falling farther behind. Poulter set the pace early and had a three-shot lead at one point until he dropped his shot from the bunker on the par-3 seventh, and then had a mixed bag of birdies and bogeys that kept him from getting closer to the lead.
Jason Day, who threw away a chance to win the Bridgestone Invitational two years ago, had a 69 and was four shots behind. Marc Leishman, who played alongside Woods, shot 67 and joined Kyle Stanley (70) five shots behind.
The course started to get a little firmer. Poulter had a 62 on Thursday. Tommy Fleetwood shot 63 on Friday. The best anyone could do in the third round was a 65 by Rickie Fowler, which only got him within six shots.
Thomas figured that out quickly.
He made an unusual birdie on the par-5 second by hitting his tee shot in the first cut of the third fairway. Blocked by threes, he opted for a 5-wood that started out toward the third tee and sliced over the trees to the rough, pin-high about 15 feet away from an up-and-down.
After a bogey from the trees at No. 3, Thomas went at a back pin on the tough fourth hole and the ball bounded over the green in thick rough. He chopped at his chip and did well to run it 10 feet by the hole, making it for par. He bogeyed the next from a bunker, and fell three shots behind, but that par save on No. 4 helped by not dropping a shot, and by understanding how the course was playing.
Thomas said he told caddie Jimmy Johnson, “We can’t see pin, hit pin.”
Fleetwood went so far long on the fourth hole that it went 30 yards over the green. He chipped 50 feet by the hole and three-putted for a double bogey, the start of what turned out to be a sloppy day and a 74 that dropped him seven shots behind.
Poulter already has won at the Houston Open in what has been a big turnaround for the Englishman, who is on the cusp of qualifying for the Ryder Cup. He made a pair of medium-length birdie putts to offset bogeys from the bunkers, but fell out of a chance to be in the last group when he missed a 6-foot par putt on the 17th.
“I’m going to have a chance,” Poulter said. “So starting this week, tied 13th I think was my best ever result. I’m tied second right now, so huge improvement and a little bit of work left to do. And hopefully, we can do it.”
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