LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This is a major.
Is it ever.
This is a golf tournament with a leaderboard full of champions and suspense. This is what we’ve been waiting for in a summer that lacked the competition any sport needs, especially when it’s without its injured star.
The U.S. Open was a runaway, Martin Kaymer breezing. The British Open was a romp for three rounds by Rory McIlroy, although it did catch our attention in the end as Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia nearly caught him.
Oh, Rory’s in front here after three rounds of this 96th PGA Championship, lurching on through the rain and sunshine at Valhalla Golf Club, but only by a stroke over someone named Bernd Wiesberger of Austria.
And you thought Austrians only skied or, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, acted in films.
Those within blinking distance include Rickie Fowler—second in the two Opens this year—Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Louis Oosthuizen and Henrik Stenson.
“I would say the leader board is the most jam-packed it’s been,” said Fowler, “maybe since the start of the final round of the Masters. This one’s out there for the taking, for sure.”
But who takes it? McIlroy, trying for his fourth major? Mickelson, a five-time major champ? Oosthuizen, a British Open champ? Stenson, the 2013 points winner on both tours? Day, a previous runner-up in the Masters and U.S. Open?
Tiger Woods, missing the Friday cut, said farewell and a golf tournament showed up in his stead. If you can’t have "the man" then you have to have the men, and this one does.
“When there are this many guys,” said Mickelson, “I don’t look at the leaderboard. I know I’ve got to push and make birdies.”
He made them Saturday. So did McIlroy and Fowler and Wiesberger, the great unknown in this equation.
McIlroy, after his win in the British and then last Sunday at the Bridgestone, is on a roll, playing like the No. 1 golfer in the rankings, which he is. He had a 4-under par 67 in the third round for a 13-under total of 200 on a course, which even at 7,458 yards is too short for these guys.
Wiesberger, 28, finished birdie, birdie, birdie, for a 65 that put him at 201. Fowler shot 67 for 202, Mickelson 67 for 203. Oosthuizen (67), Stenson (67), Mikko Ilonen of Finland (69) and Ryan Palmer (69) all sit at -9, four shots back.
The PGA and CBS, televising the event, needed some excitement when it didn’t have Woods, and it has plenty. Rory trying to go back-to-back in the majors, Mickelson trying to prove at 44 he isn’t done, Fowler and Day trying to get that breakthrough.
“With the way the course is playing,” said Fowler, “it’s not out of the question someone can shoot eight or nine under, being five, six shots back, post a score early, and you never know what can happen. It’s wide open, and someone is going to have to play some good, solid golf (Sunday) to win.”
There were 18 players within six shots of the lead, a group that besides the names mentioned include 2013 Masters winner Adam Scott, 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and eternal also-ran Lee Westwood, who is 0-for-66 in majors.
Day, the Australian, emulated countryman Crocodile Dundee when he hit his tee shot into the marshland at No. 2, taking off his shoes and socks, rolling up his pants to the knees and after his caddy tossed him a wedge, blasting a shot close enough to save par.
"It was a great four," he confirmed, "a lucky four."
Jonathan Lintner of The Louisville Courier-Journal described the scene in his live blog:
Day also wound up his pants, took off his shoes and walked across the creek. "It's actually quite pleasant—the temperature of the water," Feherty said. All the while, leader Rory McIlroy took his second shot out of the fairway and proceeded on. Day didn't take a club with him over the water—his caddie tossed him a pitching wedge—and he threw a shot across the fairway and onto rough on the other side.
Luck is always an element in golf, especially when the field is bunched, but talent is more important, and these days nobody seems more talented—his drives are enormous, his short game accurate—than the 25-year-old McIlroy.
"He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now," Fowler, also 25, said of McIlroy, who he’s battled since they were amateurs. "He’s up there as one of the longer guys in the driving category. He’s not going to back up, and we’re are definitely have go out and show him we’re around."
McIlroy plays with Wiesberger the final round, Fowler with his friend and frequent practice partner, Mickelson.
“I prefer to play with friends,” Fowler said. “He and I are able to feed off each other.”
McIlroy, figuratively, has been feeding off everybody, even when his game is less than perfect.
“I didn’t have my best stuff for some of that round,” he said about Saturday. “There are stretches in the round I really felt good."
Mickelson feels great. He shot a 62 in the final round of the Bridgestone and feels revitalized, if wary.
“I’m playing a guy that’s won the last two weeks he played,” Mickelson said of McIlroy. “That’s a huge disadvantage to me because I haven’t been in the heat.”
He is now. So are all the others who have turned this PGA into the major we’ve waited for all season.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.