LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If Tiger Woods is the man bringing great drama to big golf tournaments these days, then credit Rory McIlroy as the man who busily has been extracting it.
If it’s an exciting major championship finish you yearn for, well, you might consider asking McIlroy to stay home. He is golf’s speeding train, and the rest of his peers simply are having a difficult time just staying on the same track. At the 96th PGA Championship on a soft and soggy Valhalla Golf Club track, he’s threatening – again – to just run away.
By mid-afternoon Friday, there was much golf to be played, but in watching McIlroy at work, there was a sense that we’d all seen this movie before. At Congressional. At Kiawah Island. And last month at Royal Liverpool. A day after hitting the ball seamlessly in a 5-under 66, McIlroy slogged his way through some early rains and loose iron shots on his final nine, yet still managed to shoot 67. At 9-under 133, he’s the man everyone will be trying to beat this weekend.
“There was not much going wrong with his game,” said Martin Kaymer, who played alongside McIlroy for two days. “Even when he misses the greens, he still saves par, and all of a sudden he gave himself a couple of eagle chances … It’s impressive the way he plays golf.”
McIlroy converted one of those eagle opportunities, a 30-footer from the front of the 18th green (his ninth hole), and nearly added another when he ripped 5-wood to 8 feet at the 597-yard seventh (his 16th). On Thursday, he blistered Valhalla’s par 4s (5 under), and a day later, he was tearing up the par 5s, making the most of his skillful driving in playing them in 3 under.
And for the second consecutive day, he showed a strong kick at the finish, completing his effort Friday with birdies on two of his last three holes.
“I’m feeling good about my game,” he said. “I’m confident. I didn’t hit the ball as well today as I did yesterday, but I’m still in control of my game and my emotions.”
Most dangerous for those trying to chase might not be McIlroy’s complete shot arsenal as much as his reinvigorated, front-running attitude. He shifted gears mentally after squandering a four-shot lead at the Masters in 2011, where he chopped up the back nine, shot 80, and watched Charl Schwartzel get fitted for his green jacket.
Now when McIlroy seizes a lead, he seeks not to protect it, but to increase it.
“… If I’m three ahead, I’m going to try to get four ahead. If I’m four ahead, I’m going to try to get five ahead,” McIlroy said. “I’m just trying to keep the pedal down and get as many as possible. That’s the mindset.”
Certainly it is working. Even when he didn’t have his best stuff Friday, which was the case over the final nine holes, he scrambled for pars and found the odd birdie. He followed his second bogey of the day with a nice up-and-down from the right bunker at the third, and made a deft bump-and-run chip to inside 2 feet after missing the green right at the par-4 sixth. At seven, his world returned to normal: big tee shot followed by a pure 5-wood that sunk into the soaked green only 8 feet from the flag.
“That 5-wood has been good to me this year,” he grinned.
The eagle putt missed, but he made birdie, then added one more at the short ninth, hitting wedge 16 feet and finishing the job. Even when it wasn’t easy, he made it appear that way.
McIlroy’s run is reminiscent of McIlroy’s torrid run in late summer/autumn of 2012, when he collected trophies from the PGA Championship, two FedEx Cup Playoff events and the Euro Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, and sealed earnings titles in both the U.S. and Europe.
So we’ve seen the man on a good run before. Does this one feel like the previous?
“Confidence-wise, I feel similar to what I did at the end of ’12,” he said. “I just know that I’m a better player than I was in ’12. I’m much better equipped mentally and physically to handle a stretch like this, when you’re in the lead for a lot of tournaments in the summer, every round, and sort of playing with that lead.”
It all moved him closer to where he wants to be, trying to secure his second consecutive major, his fourth overall. All at age 25. Like Sinatra once crooned, the kid has the world on a string. And he knows it.
“There’s a lot of golf left to play,” he said, “and I’m going to try my best to just keep what I’ve got, and keep doing that. If I was sitting here on Sunday night with the Wanamaker (trophy) right here, yeah, I’d be very happy.”