HE may have

missed the

halfway cut by the length of a Bryson DeChambeau drive but Rory McIlroy was still causing chatter in the Sawgrass steamie as the third round of The Players Championship unravelled last night.

While Lee Westwood and Paul Casey were bidding to become the first English winner of the PGA Tour’s flagship event, and Justin Thomas set a rousing early standard, McIlroy’s earlier musings about why his title defence had endured such toil and trouble had led to the kind of eye-brow raising admission that would have prompted a mouth-gaping gasp from Oprah Winfrey.

After a torrid couple of days, the Northern Irishman had finished 10 shots off the qualifying mark for the closing 36-holes. In a typically honest assessment of issues with his swing in the immediate aftermath of his early exit on Friday, the four-time major winner confessed that the aforementioned DeChambeau’s power game had prompted his own search for more speed and distance, despite being one of the longest hitters on the tour. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the US Open,” McIlroy said of big-hitting Bryson’s battering of Winged Foot last season.

That declaration led to

much pondering and pontificating from all and sundry with Paul McGinley, the former Ryder Cup captain and Sky Sports golf analyst flinging a bit more than a tuppence worth in.

“Professional golfers are like sheep, we are going to follow somebody who is having some success,” he said. “What’s incredible is that one of the best drivers of the ball that we’ve ever seen thinks that he might need to find another 10 or 15 yards.

“That was not necessary. We all know where Rory’s weaknesses are. His approach play particularly, over the last 12, 14 months, has really fallen off the planet. It’s incredible he would go down this road.”

This particular road that McIlroy has opted to journey down will no doubt lead to frenzied analysis as The Masters looms on the horizon. As for the here and now? Well, the Sawgrass show was going on without him and it continued to make for fascinating viewing.

Thomas certainly grabbed the attention as the world No.3 made the kind of giant leap that Neil Armstrong would have been proud of. After a couple of steady 71s, the 27-year-old mounted a thrilling offensive and his superb eight-under 64 propelled him into the clubhouse lead as the last groups were heading down the back nine. It was a terrific statement of intent that reverberated around the Stadium Course.

Thomas was out of the blocks quicker than a greyhound at Shawfield and four birdies in his opening four holes had him barging up the order. That early surge was tempered by a bogey on the fifth but the response was robust. Further gains at seven, 10 and 11 bolstered his assault before Thomas delivered a telling salvo on the 16th.

A wonderful 5-iron to tap-in distance set up an eagle and he vaulted to the head of the pack.

It’s been a turbulent year for Thomas. He was embroiled in controversy after a homophobic curse picked up by a microphone led to widespread condemnation while the death of his grandfather caused much personal grief. Slowly but surely, Thomas is emerging from the professional and personal tumult.

“I wish all rounds were that easy,” said Thomas. “Golf is so fun when you’re playing well but this game isn’t like that, unfortunately.

“I’ve definitely had my fair share of lows this season and stuff going on mentally that I felt like I’ve never had to deal with and maybe taking things for granted. Being irritable, frustrated, emotional on the golf course is not good for me.”

It was all happening in round three. Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, may have been well out of contention at level-par after a one-over 73 but his announcement that he wouldn’t be making himself available for the Olympics will make a sizeable impact. “I just didn’t sign up,” he said with trademark nonchalance “It’s right in the middle of a big stretch of golf for me.”

On the closing stretch at Sawgrass last night, the in-form 47-year-old Westwood was making a fine fist of it at the sharp end while the impressive Doug Ghim and DeChambeau were among a host of movers and shakers vying for Sawgrass supremacy.