Rory McIlroy saw some promising signs but also a few of this season's uncertainties as he continued his preparations for the Masters.
The World No 2 finished the third round of the Valero Texas Open, a tournament he came into late in search of better form, four shots off the lead after a shooting a one-under-par 71. He goes into the final round today two shots behind the American Billy Horschel, who retained his overnight lead.
McIlroy hit only seven of 14 fairways for the second time in the tournament, continuing his trend of up-and-down play this year, which has coincided with an offseason equipment change.
The two-time major winner, who lost the top ranking to Tiger Woods this year, signed up for the tournament only last week and the ploy appears to be paying off.
McIlroy was six under for the tournament going into the final round and in a tie for fourth place after a magnificent 67 on Friday. He started in similar vein yesterday with two birdies in his first three holes, but that form did not last.
Things looked to be going wrong when he had bogey fives at the fourth, 10th and 11th but it was a good sign that there was no hint of the despondency that seems to have affected him at times since the start of the season. He did after all rescue the round with birdies at the 12th and 14th to move back into contention.
Horschel, who opened with back-to-back 68s, had five birdies and three bogeys in a 70 to put him on 10 under, two clear of compatriots Charley Hoffman and Jim Furyk.
McIlroy was in a group of three on six under with Ryan Palmer, who had the best round of the day, a 68, and Bob Estes, who shot a 69.
Woods knows all about losing form, although in his case the reasons were easier to fathom. Now he is back as a serious challenger for The Masters eight years after he rolled in a 15ft birdie putt in a play-off to win his fourth green jacket.
"It's been one of those things where I've been close there so many times on that back nine on Sunday and I just haven't won," Woods said. "I've been in the mix. I've been right there with just a few holes to go, and it just hasn't happened. Hopefully, this year it will be a different story."
This might be his best chance to end the drought, not only at Augusta, but in the majors. His last win was the 2008 US Open.
Woods, 37, is fully healthy for the first time in years. He appears happy in his personal life, after the scandal that ruined his marriage and his image, announcing a few weeks ago that he is now dating Lindsey Vonn, the Olympic skiing champion.
He is also winning titles again at an alarming rate – six out of his past 20 starts on the US PGA Tour, three of them coming this season. He could hardly be in a better state heading into the Masters.