McIlroy matched the low round of the day with 5-under-par 67 on Friday and moved within three shots of the Billy Horschel’s lead, continuing his last-minute preparations for next week’s Masters Tournament.
The world’s No. 2 golfer, who decided to play in the tournament late last week, had seven birdies – including his final three holes – and overcame a bogey on No. 9 after driving into the rough and catching his left shin on a nearby cactus.
He rebounded with key putts on the final three holes for birdies and pulled within reach of the leaders entering the weekend.
The 23-year-old two-time major winner is three shots back of Horschel, who birdied his last two holes to post his second consecutive 68.
Daniel Summerhays, Charley Hoffman and Steven Bowditch are two shots back at 6-under, while McIlroy is tied with six others at 5-under.
Thursday’s co-leaders, Matt Bettencourt and Peter Tomasulo, each shot 73s and fell four shots off the lead.
Horschel jumped from 60th to 24th on the money list after a second-place finish at last week’s Houston Open. He closed out Thursday’s round with a birdie, and he one-upped that on Friday – closing with a pair of 11-foot birdie putts on No. 17 and 18 to vault into first.
He needed 28 putts on Friday after taking only 25 a day earlier, but Horschel hit 11 of 14 fairways after hitting seven a day earlier.
Now he faces a leaderboard filled with winning experienced players behind him, including four players – McIlroy, Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen and Lee Janzen – who have combined to win seven majors.
“I couldn’t care less if they’ve won majors or not, honestly,” said Horschel, who would earn a Masters invitation with a win. “I know they’re good players and what they’ve done, but I feel I’m a good player in my own right.”
McIlroy is the most recent major winner of the pursuers, having won the PGA Championship last August. However, he’s struggled for much of this year following an equipment change and recently lost his No. 1 ranking to Tiger Woods.
McIlroy has only one top-10 finish this year, and he decided late last week to add the San Antonio stop to his schedule to add competitive rounds prior to next week’s opening major of the year.
It’s a move that appeared questionable after an up-and-down even-par 72 on Thursday, but not anymore after Friday’s scoring binge.
McIlroy still had fits with his driving, hitting only 9 of 14 fairways, but he made lengthy birdie putts on each of his final three holes <0x2014> including a 26-foot strike on the par-3 16th. He narrowly missed a 24-foot eagle putt in front of a surging gallery on the 18th after reaching the par 5 in two shots.