Rory McIlroy is three shots behind the leader at the Tournament of Champions. Photo: Kamran Jebreili/AP Photo

LOS ANGELES Gary Woodland eagled the 15th hole in a five-under par 68 on Saturday that kept him three strokes in front of Rory McIlroy atop the US PGA Tour Tournament of Champions leaderboard.

Woodland led McIlroy and two other players going into Saturday's third round on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, Hawaii.

Northern Ireland star McIlroy, a four-time major champion, had pulled level after his fifth birdie of the day at the 14th coupled with Woodland's lone bogey of the day at 12.

But Woodland regained control at the par-five 15th, where he rolled in a 64-foot eagle putt to stretch his lead to two, and he birdied the par-five 18th to finish with a 17-under par total of 202.

"I played great," said Woodland, "I would have liked to see a couple of putts go in early. It was nice to see that long one go in on the par five there on the back, nice to finish with a birdie here on 18."

McIlroy, opening his year at Kapalua for the first time, couldn't take advantage of the two par-fives on the back nine.

He gained ground with three birdies in a row at the fourth, fifth and sixth and picked up another stroke at the ninth.

He got up and down for birdie from the left rough at the 14th, but wouldn't find another birdie the rest of the way in his second straight 68 for 205.

"Could have been a couple better," McIlroy said. "But good save at two, a good save at 16, so it could have been a little worse as well."

Woodland was playing with a heavy heart after learning his grandmother had died on Friday night.

"I want to send a little shout out to my family back home," he said. "We lost my grandma last night. That put things in perspective real quick.

"It was a tough night last night  today was a good day."

Woodland said he didn't realize McIlroy had pulled into a tie for the lead on the back nine.

"I was just trying to stay within myself," he said. "Trying to stay aggressive."

He'll do the same on Sunday, when he'll be seeking a fourth US PGA Tour title. Not known as a strong front-runner, Woodland said there's no reason he can't turn that around on Sunday.

"The whole deal is I'm playing really well," he said.

McIlroy said the key for him on Sunday would be to stay patient.

"I've just got to go about my business, hit fairways and hit greens again," he said. I just have to go out and try to play a good round of golf."

McIlroy was one stroke in front of Australian Marc Leishman, who also carded a 68.

American's Xander Schauffele (78) and Bryson DeChambeau (70) were tied on 207.

AFP