By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PONTE VEDRA BEACH Florida (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy on Saturday was once again left shaking his head in disbelief over how much he has struggled on the front nine before flourishing after the turn at this week's Players Championship.
Making his fifth appearance in the PGA Tour event widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major, the Northern Irishman has covered the opening nine holes in an aggregate of nine over par for the first three rounds at the TPC Sawgrass layout.
Yet in stark contrast, the former world number one has surged to a collective 12 under over the homeward stretch on a par-72 layout where a premium is always placed on the first shot and trouble lurks at every corner.
"If I had just kept it around even par for the front nine, I'd be up near the leaders," McIlroy told reporters after firing a three-under 69 in increasingly breezy conditions on Saturday.
"I'm really happy with how I've been able to come back the last couple of days, but it's also a little frustrating that I've had to come back because I feel like I'm playing good enough to not have these little stretches of bad holes.
"Maybe tomorrow I can put it all together, start strongly and finish strongly like I have the last few days."
McIlroy, who made the cut right on the number after opening scores of 70 and 74, made a stumbling start on Saturday with a bogey at the first, a double at the fourth and another dropped shot at the sixth.
However, he then kicked into overdrive, sinking an 18-footer to birdie the seventh and draining a monster putt from 38 feet from just off the fringe to reach the turn in two-over 38.
McIlroy picked up further shots at the 10th, 11th, 16th, 17th and the last to come home in a sizzling five-under 31 to post a three-under total of 213, nine strokes off the overnight lead.
"I'd hit five greens in six holes, and I was four over par," bemoaned the 25-year-old from Holywood. "I hadn't really done much wrong.
"I had three really big lip-outs on the front nine, but it was nice to see a putt go in on seven, then I holed one from off the green, which was a bonus. I was in a decent frame of mind going into the back nine."
Asked whether he would change his strategy for the front nine during Sunday's final round, McIlroy replied: "Not really, just maybe put a premium on hitting it in the middles of greens and not taking too many chances.
"I took a couple of chances today on a couple of the shorter holes, and it didn't really pay off. So yeah, maybe just play a little more conservative on the front nine tomorrow."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Larry Fine)