Tally-ho. The fox hunt is on.
Rory McIlroy heads into Sunday’s final round of the PGA Championship leading by one shot, but it's without the kind of cushion he’s carried after 54 holes in the three major championships he has won.
The 25-year-old wasn’t in a mood to quibble about that, and at his press conference, via ASAP Sports, he maintained that he’s more than happy with his tenuous position, saying:
Obviously it has its stresses at some point, but at the same time it's where you want to be. It's the position you want to be in. We don't practice all these hours and grind on the range and put so much work into it to be teeing off in the middle of the pack on Sunday of a major. That's where you want to be.
But among the crowd bunched behind him are two very key names.
Rickie Fowler, sitting two strokes behind, is the hip young cat in the big Puma hat who’s still on the prowl for his first major, but who overall has clawed his way through golf’s four big tournaments better than anyone this year.
Fowler is the only player to finish in the top five at all three majors played so far, and at the PGA, he has been bogey-free for the last 27 holes.
Phil Mickelson, three shots shy of McIlroy, has finally righted his left-handed game in Louisville and appears ready for a homestretch charge that would make any Kentucky Derby thoroughbred proud.
Mickelson birdied four of his final five holes Saturday and missed an eagle on No. 18 by the proverbial gnat’s eyelash.
Those two sizzling Yanks will be playing in the pair ahead of Northern Ireland’s McIlroy. And there will be many in the crowd at Valhalla who still take pride in having hollered loud and clear for the U.S. team that won the Ryder Cup there in 2008.
Think they might want to be heard from again?
If those two can hit more big shots like they did on Saturday, they’ll get the crowds roaring within earshot of Rory.
Think he’ll be listening? Or will the world’s No. 1-ranked player merely flick the competition aside again, the way he did while winning the British Open and Bridgestone Invitational his last two times out?
That might be the only legitimate question that’s left to be asked about McIlroy’s game. He’s been breezing to huge victories, but it's been without needing to navigate his way through much turbulence.
At the British Open in July, McIlroy had a six-stroke lead in hand after three rounds and only needed to stay friends with Old Man Par to survive for a two-shot victory on Sunday. Sergio Garcia briefly tightened the screws with a 10th-hole eagle, but he never really made McIlroy sweat.
The story was similar when McIlroy won the 2012 PGA Championship.
He was up by three strokes when the weather-delayed fourth round began, and his closest pursuer down the stretch was England’s David Lynn, playing in only his second major. That’s not exactly akin to being chased by the ghost of Ben Hogan.
Make no mistake, McIlroy was brilliant and then some. He fired a 66 to win by eight strokes, but he still never had his nerves severely tested.
McIlroy was equally superb at the 2011 U.S. Open, finishing a tournament-record 16 under while winning his first major by eight strokes, at the age of 22. But it was another case of having left the competition in the dust on Saturday, as McIlroy began the final round with an eight-stroke lead.
I’m going to inch out on a limb here and predict that on Sunday McIlroy won’t necessarily be hurt by his Sunday pairing, but it probably won’t help.
He’ll be playing alongside Bernd Wiesberger, and yeah, put me down for “ditto” if you’re saying “Who?”
Wiesberger had made only one cut at a major before this week, at the 2013 British Open, where he tied for 64th. It won’t be a surprise if being paired with McIlroy grinds the game of the 28-year-old Austrian into so much Vienna sausage.
No one will be surprised if Wiesberger cracks under pressure, spends the day chasing balls in the Kentucky woods and intermittently delays McIlroy’s march.
It also might be a letdown for McIlroy. He spent the first two rounds playing with this year’s other two winners of majors, Masters champ Bubba Watson and U.S. Open victor Martin Kaymer, and he pretty much stomped them. Saturday’s round was spent touring Valhalla with Justin Day, one of golf’s best young names.
But McIlroy did withstand his share of heat on Saturday.
At one point, there was a four-way tie for the lead, and 15 players were within three strokes of the top spot.
McIlroy was proud of the way he emerged from that gridlock, telling Sky Sports, via CNN.com:
I knew there were guys ahead of me making birdies and it gives me a lot of confidence knowing that if I get challenged and people put the pressure on I am able to respond like I did today. If I can keep playing well and staying mentally strong, there is another major to maybe come my way.
Given the way McIlroy has dominated golf the last few weeks, there’s little reason to doubt him, and after 36 holes at Valhalla, Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated even wrote, "...make no mistake, this tournament is over." But let’s wait and see whether Fowler, Mickelson or one of the other chasing hounds can make the walls close in on him.
Tom Weir covered several golf majors as a columnist for USA Today.
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