Houston - Rory McIlroy struggled again on Saturday, his chance to win and overtake Tiger Woods for World No 1 dwindling as Americans Stewart Cink and Bill Haas shared the PGA Houston Open lead.
Haas fired a five-under par 67 while Cink, who has not won since defeating Tom Watson in a playoff at the 2009 British Open, shot a 68 to stand atop the leaderboard on 11-under 205, both nine strokes ahead of World No 2 McIlroy.
Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the all-time record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, won his third event of the year last week at Bay Hill to pass McIlroy and take the top spot in the rankings for the fist time since 2010.
McIlroy, who has played only 11 competitive rounds this year, could reclaim the top spot with a victory this week but he only made the cut on the number and stumbled late on his way to a 71 on Saturday.
The Northern Irish standout, a two-time major winner, birdied the par-4 second, the par-3 seventh and par-5 eighth. Another birdie at the 12th had him lurking within reach of the lead pack.
But McIlroy followed with bogeys at the par-5 13th and par-3 14th and closed with another bogey to finish in a share of 48th, showing no sign of making the astonishing climb it would take for victory on Sunday.
Even though he made little headway on the leaderboard, McIlroy was pleased with his round.
"I hit the ball really well," he said. "It's the best I've hit it on the golf course this week. So I take a lot of positives from it.
"Obviously the finish wasn't what I wanted. Just some silly mistakes from rustiness, I guess. I think with a little more competitive play, I'll eradicate that."
McIlroy has made sure he'll get more play before the Masters by adding next week's Texas Open in San Antonio to his schedule. He committed to the tournament on Friday afternoon.
"I think it's a good decision, and I'm obviously looking forward to getting a few more rounds under our belt going into Augusta," he added.
Haas did make a move, shrugging off a bogey at the third with a run of three birdies in a row ending at the eighth followed by a birdie-birdie start to the back nine.
After a bogey at 13, Haas responded with birdies at the par-3 14th and 16th holes.
Cink had back-to-back birdies at the seventh and eighth and again at the 11th and 12th holes and answered his lone stumble of the round, a bogey at the 14th, with a birdie at the 15th.
The US veteran expected to feel a few butterflies as he tries to get back to the winner's circle.
"I'll be nervous and I definitely will not be ignoring the fact that I'll feel a little bit nervous tomorrow, but that's just natural human behavior and I'm looking forward to it," Cink said. "To get back in the hunt is what you play golf for."
Americans Ben Crane, DA Points, Steve Wheatcroft and Jason Kokrak shared third on 206. A pack of nine on 207 included England's Lee Westwood, South African Louis Oosthuizen, Sweden's Henrik Stenson, Argentina's Angel Cabrera and American Keegan Bradley.
Leading scores on Saturday after the third round of the $6.2m PGA Houston Open (USA unless noted, par-72):
205 - Stewart Cink 71-66-68, Bill Haas 68-70-67
206 - Ben Crane 69-70-67, DA Points 64-71-71, Steve Wheatcroft 67-67-72, Jason Kokrak 66-69-71
- Bud Cauley 68-74-65, Louis Oosthuizen (RSA) 70-72-65, Lee Westwood
(ENG) 68-72-67, Billy Horschel 68-72-67, Kevin Chappell 70-70-67, Keegan
Bradley 70-70-67, Henrik Stenson (SWE) 69-70-68, Angel Cabrera (ARG)
66-72-69, Cameron Tringale 65-73-69
208 - Brian Davis (ENG) 67-70-71
209 - Greg Owen (ENG) 68-73-68, John Merrick 68-72-69, Charley Hoffman 68-71-70, Dustin Johnson 69-70-70
- Phil Mickelson 72-71-67, Chez Reavie 72-70-68, Graham DeLaet (CAN)
71-71-68, Josh Teater 74-67-69, Scott Verplank 72-68-70, John Rollins