Henrik Stenson tees off on the eighth hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Michael Cohen / Getty Images
By Gary Van Sickle
Saturday, March 21, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It’s a good thing the Masters Tournament is still three weeks away.

Henrik Stenson looks ready.

Rory McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked player in the world?

Not so much.

Stenson finished eagle-par-birdie for 66 and a two-stroke lead over Morgan Hoffmann after 54 holes of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. Jason Kokrak, Matt Jones, Ben Martin and Matt Every are three shots back.

McIlroy played his way into contention through 13 holes Saturday but then fell off the leaderboard like a sailor tied to a dropped anchor.

There were high hopes when McIlroy, 25, of Northern Ireland, signed up to play in his first API event. He’d been on the verge of contention after a second-round 66 but Saturday’s finish dampened those hopes.

McIlroy bogeyed the 14th, 15th and 16th holes Saturday and shot 71 on a warm, quiet day when scores were low for a third straight round. McIlroy fell to 12th place, seven strokes behind Stenson, and looks to be out of it unless his Sunday round includes a miracle of the Hail Mary, Doug Flutie or Robert Gamez type.

“Everything was going really well for 13 holes,” said McIlroy.

A poor iron shot led to a bogey at 14, his second putt bounced off a spike mark at 15 and led to a three-putt and at 16, he fluffed a chip and left it short of the green.

“It was just a messy three holes,” McIlroy said. “Competitive golf highlights what you still need to work on. There are times when I’m really comfortable and times that I’m still not. For the most part, I’ve got what I wanted out of this week. It would’ve been nice to have the lead going into tomorrow.”

Instead, Stenson is left as the most experienced player atop an interesting leaderboard.

His nearest competitors, Hoffmann and Kokrak, have never won in three years on Tour. Jones is a sporadic Aussie who won last year in Houston, his only victory in eight years on Tour. Martin is starting his third year on Tour and he’s won once. Every got his first career victory here at Bay Hill exactly one year ago.

Five shots back is Sean O’Hair, who lost a playoff at Innisbrook a week ago and is enjoying a comeback after several down seasons.

In short, Stenson is the clear-cut class of the contenders. He’s ranked third in the world, he’s considered to be among the better ballstrikers on Tour and, oh yeah, he’s sort of a local guy. He’s from Sweden, of course, but has lived in a home at Lake Nona near the Orlando airport for several years.

“They asked me on Thursday how I wanted to be announced on the first tee, from Sweden or from Orlando,” Stenson said. “Of course I said Orlando. I’ve got to get whatever support I can.”

Stenson has won four times in the U.S., all of them pretty solid titles -- the Deutsche Bank Championship, the Tour Championship, The Players and the World Match Play Championship. He has won 12 times overseas and his best claim to fame thus far is capturing the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and the European Tour’s Race To Dubai titles in the same exhausting season.

If there were world rankings for golf personalities, he would also be among the top five. He’s got a sense of humor, and he’s thoughtful.

Asked if he knew that Hoffmann cooks his own food and carries it in a cooler in his golf bag to eat during the round and whether he’d have enough to share, Stenson said, “He doesn’t need to worry about me. I’ll bring my own sandwiches.”

As for the tournament being a semi-home game, Stenson said, “I would like to win here, of course, but the golf ball doesn’t know what’s happened the last three days. Hopefully, I tell it good tomorrow. That would be a good closing.”

Stenson was asked about how he’s fared with the 54-hole lead. “I thought that was your job, not mine,” he said, laughing.

When asked to explain that the Tour’s last eight 54-hole leaders haven’t won, he answered, “They haven’t played well enough.” More laughter.

“I’m not just a pretty face,” he added, prompting a few more chuckles.

Five players are within three shots of the lead.

Stenson’s finish was impressive. He hit 3-wood 6-iron to the par-5 16th green, then holed a wicked putt down the slope for eagle. At 18, Bay Hill’s signature hole, he stuck an iron shot to inside a foot for a kick-in birdie.

Five players are within three shots of the lead, so it will come down to who plays well on Sunday, not reputations or world rankings.

“I’m going to try to play my game the way I played it for the first three days,” said Stenson, who is 16 under par. “Sometimes the air is a little thinner on Sunday afternoon in the last couple of groups, but I expect I’ll have to make a few birdies if I want to win this tomorrow.”

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