Rory McIlroy fights to remain in contention at PGA
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – There is a counterintuitive way in which the rain that soaked Oak Hill on Saturday may have made things easier, at least for Rory McIlroy. Oak Hill was always going to provide a test this week, but McIlroy has been fighting more than the thick rough and wild weather. He arrived in town fighting his swing, an illness and even the demands that come from his stature in the game.
But when the water started falling from the cloudy skies Saturday, it left little time to consider such things. Simply staying dry was hard enough. Anything else fell out of focus. And so McIlroy adopted the unburdened demeanor that has so often produced his best golf. The result? The five birdies he needed to get in contention.
But there were four bogeys, as well, and they may have made winning this PGA Championship, which already seemed unlikely, nearly impossible. After shooting a second straight 69, McIlroy will start the final round in seventh place, five shots behind leader Brooks Koepka. It’s a sizable deficit, especially when trailing a four-time major winner.
“I still don't feel like my game is in great shape,” McIlroy said Saturday night. “I've held it together well. I've holed some good putts. I've scored well.”
To add a fifth major, and his first since the 2014 PGA Championship, McIlroy will need the sort of final round that he has produced in several victories but none of his majors. He was the 54-hole leader in all four of those triumphs. Now he has six players ahead of him on the leaderboard and four of them are major champions: Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose and Scottie Scheffler.
McIlroy started Saturday with birdies on both of the front nine’s par-3s, Nos. 3 and 5, to reach 2 under early. But he finished the front nine with bogeys on three of the final four holes. Oak Hill’s back nine is the easier side and McIlroy again moved up the leaderboard with birdies at Nos. 12, 13 and 16. He had to make a 5-footer for bogey on the next hole, however.
The rain that continually soaked Oak Hill on Saturday is expected to depart before the final round, leaving a golf course that is more receptive but also whose punishing rough is even lusher. Is a final-round 65 feasible?
“I hope so,” McIlroy said. “I made enough birdies to shoot a score like that. I just needed to keep those mistakes off the card. I need to keep hope. I have to believe that there is a score like that out there because looking at the board, it's probably a score I'm going to have to shoot something like that to have a chance to win.”
Oak Hill’s fairways have been difficult for everyone to find this week, convincing McIlroy that he’s better off swinging for the fences than trying to guide his ball into the fairway. The inevitable miss is better off being closer to the hole.
“Even today, I was just aiming it down one side of the hole,” he said, “and hitting driver and sort of just accepting that it probably will go in the rough.
“I was a little more accepting of the ball going in the rough today, and I actually hit more fairways because of it. It just goes to show if you have a little more of a carefree attitude, it seems to work out a little bit better.”
That was the characteristic McIlroy often showed a decade ago, when he won four majors in three years, often by sizable margins. His swing was uninhibited by tension. Life gets more complex with time, however, and even McIlroy is not exempt from that.
It was only last month when he missed the cut at the Masters and then withdrew from the following week’s RBC Heritage. He did not specify a reason, which is well within his rights, but did say that he would be doing “myself a disservice and doing the people around me a disservice” if he had played. The demands of the last year, of being the game’s leader both on and off the course, had caught up with him, he said.
McIlroy returned at the Wells Fargo Championship, mirroring his usual post-Masters schedule, but finished T47 on a course where he’d won three times and failed to finish in the top 10 only two other times. His clubface was getting too open on the backswing, leading to too much rotation through impact and a two-way miss, he said.
To make matters worse, McIlroy was feeling ill at the start of this week, his Whoop fitness device only confirming what he could feel. McIlroy was 3 over par for his first 10 holes of the tournament, but his fortunes turned after he holed a lengthy par putt from behind the second green. He played the final eight holes in 2 under to salvage a 71. He was 2 over for the first seven holes of the second round, as well, but shot 69.
“The non-physical parts of the game I think are way more important this week than the physical parts of the game,” he said, “and I think I've done those well.
“That's the reason that I'm in a decent position.”
Sean Martin is a senior editor for the PGA TOUR. He is a 2004 graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Attending a small school gave him a heart for the underdog, which is why he enjoys telling stories of golf's lesser-known players. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.