Justin Thomas leads from Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter at Firestone

Justin Thomas took control of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational as Rory McIlroy moved into a share of second place after day three at Firestone.

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Firmer and faster conditions contributed to a significant downturn in the low scores of the first two rounds, but Thomas still managed to make six birdies while also dropping three shots as he opened up a three-stroke advantage on 14 under par.

Thomas will play the final round alongside 2014 champion McIlroy, who battled hard to keep a bogey off his card in a three-birdie 67 which lifted him to 11 under, while overnight co-leader Ian Poulter remains in the hunt despite an erratic 70 featuring four birdies and as many bogeys.

But Tommy Fleetwood, who shared the halfway lead with Poulter and Thomas, tumbled seven shots off the pace after a ragged 74, while Tiger Woods’ hopes of a ninth victory in the final staging of the event in Akron were scuppered by a 73.

Thomas will be favourite to land his maiden WGC title and give himself the ultimate confidence boost ahead of his defence of next week’s PGA Championship, where he will play with McIlroy and Woods over the first two rounds at Bellerive.

The world No 3, who is making only his third appearance in Akron, slipped to one over for the day when he followed a birdie at the second with bogeys at two of the next three holes, but he staged an impressive recovery as he converted a pair of five-foot birdie putts on six and eight to get back under the card.

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Thomas then roared clear of the chasing pack when he picked up three shots in five holes after the turn, including a sublime chip-in at the short 12th, although he then blotted his card again after missing the green at the 15th before parring safely in.

With Poulter enduring an inconsistent run down the stretch, McIlroy took the opportunity to book his place in Sunday’s final pairing as he enjoyed his second blemish-free round of the week.

McIlroy made a confident start with a birdie at the second before missing a handful of further opportunities while also doing well to scramble pars before landing a bonus on the ninth green when he holed from close to 30 feet for a three.

The 29-year-old was furious to miss another birdie putt from four feet at the 10th, and he produced a vital par save at 15 before making birdie at 17 for the second day running – this time with a 15-foot putt rather than his superb bunker hole-out on Friday.

McIlroy missed from similar range on the last green to stay at 11 under alongside Poulter, who claimed the outright lead early on with back-to-back birdies at the second and third before giving one back at the seventh.

Poulter steadied himself with a run of pars before mixing three bogeys with a pair of birdies in a colourful five-hole stretch from the 13th, and a par at the last kept him in a share of second and one ahead of Jason Day, who carded his fourth bogey of the day at the last to return a 69.

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Day’s fellow Australian Marc Leishman is one further back after a gallant 67, while Rickie Fowler gave himself an outside chance of victory with a sparkling five-birdie 65, the low round of the day elevating the fan favourite to eight under.

Fleetwood’s challenge appears to be over after he mixed two birdies with four bogeys – including two over the last two holes – and one double-bogey at the fourth as he crashed to seven under.

Woods, meanwhile, admitted he struggled during his warm-up on the range and he also suffered on the greens, making only one birdie against four bogeys in a disappointing 73 which saw him slide 11 strokes off the pace.

Can McIlroy catch Thomas on the final day? Tune into live coverage from Firestone at 7pm on Sky Sports Golf.

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