KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – To say it’s been a strange major season for golf’s mighty wunderkind, Rory McIlroy, would be something of an understatement. There was a weekend vanishing act at Augusta (77-76), a jarring missed cut at the U.S. Open, and an Open Championship in England where, once Friday morning hit, you barely remembered he was on the grounds at Royal Lytham.
He has been searching to re-ignite his game this summer, but McIlroy nonetheless does not look any worse for wear. Though others harbor great expectations, he doesn’t care to carry the great weight of a season lost in the big events, instead choosing simply to whistle happily as he walks past the graveyard. Ah, you have to admire the innocence of youth.
Saturday at Kiawah Island, the world caught a giant snapshot of the young talent who brought his sport to its knees at the U.S. Open at Congressional just 14 months ago. Despite a bogey at the par-4 ninth, McIlroy still managed to blister the Ocean Course’s front nine in 32 shots, moving right to the top of the leaderboard next to Vijay Singh, a man more than twice his age.
Sunday morning, McIlroy will awake with a grand opportunity, hoping one long day (27 holes) will culminate with him holding his second major-championship trophy. Three months past his 23rd birthday, the Northern Irishman would be younger than Tiger Woods was when Woods captured his second major (the 1999 PGA, at 23 years, 7 months). For McIlroy, much like the wet, windy Ocean Course, where play was suspended midway through Saturday’s third round, it’s right there in front of him.
“I’m going into the final day of the final major of the season tied for the lead, so I mean, I can’t ask for much more,” said McIlroy, who is 6 under, deadlocked with Singh and one shot ahead of Adam Scott. “So, you know, I don’t care if it’s going to be 27 holes, 18 holes, 36 holes . . . I’m just happy to be going in there in a good position.”
Earlier this week, McIlroy just asked that he give himself a chance come Sunday, and certainly he’ll have that. As Woods slid backwards on Saturday (playing seven holes in 3 over), McIlroy made a move. That’s not to say the nine holes he played was devoid of ample drama.
He rolled in a nice right-to-left curler for birdie at 1, then experienced two bizarre holes. At the par-5 second, he had 275 yards to the green and hit 5-wood, but immediately lost track of the shot. His initial reaction was one of concern.
“It came off a little higher than I anticipated, and I had no idea,” McIlroy said later. “I had to turn and ask JP (Fitzgerald, his caddie) where the ball was.”
Be still your heart, Rors. His ball ended up in the center of the green, setting up a second consecutive birdie.
Next hole, he incurred a different kind of break. McIlroy hit a tee shot that never reached the ground. It rattled around in a cut-off limb hanging off a dead oak tree and stayed there, some 8 feet up. He and a search party had been scouring the high grasses frantically until a TV person on the ground gave him the news. So McIlroy retrieved his ball, declared an unplayable, wedged onto the green from 70 yards and saved a brilliant par.
“To be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled when I saw the ball,” he said, “but to get up and down, that was a big moment.”
It was. This is a kid who might give us a whole bunch of big moments over the next two decades, and he could take a big step on Sunday. The PGA Championship is called Glory’s Last Shot for a reason, as one man will leave Kiawah happy and many others will lament a major season that got away.
McIlroy seems to have a certain calm and confidence about him this week. He has talked with former PGA champion Dave Stockton about keeping a good attitude. A solid finish in Akron last week (he tied for fifth at the WGC-Bridgestone after a 67-68 weekend) has refueled him with some swagger; five birdies in eight holes Saturday on an exacting golf course showed he has a gear that few others possess.
With his late-afternoon finish Saturday, he planned to return to the posh home he and his camp have rented for the week on the island, put his feet up, relax, and watch his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, play in the quarterfinals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Then it’s early to bed, early to rise, getting up at 5:30 a.m. in order to be in position by 7:45 a.m. to conclude his third round.
Truth is, he doesn’t plan to make it any routine Sunday.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve come in here with a little bit of confidence from the way I played last week. It’s just been nice to take that into this week and show it out on the golf course. You know, there’s still a lot of guys with a chance to win going into tomorrow – 27 holes left, you’ve still got a long way to go.
“I’ve put myself in a nice position going into tomorrow. And as I said here on Wednesday, that’s all I really wanted to do. It should be exciting.”
That first part has been covered. And something says there may be one more big step to his grand plan.