LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As Rory McIlroy stood over a lengthy birdie putt on the 17th green at a steamy and wet Valhalla Golf Club on Saturday afternoon, he was fully aware of what was on the line.
He had seen the names on the leaderboard:
Fowler, 11 under.
Mickelson, 10 under.
Oosthuizen, 9 under.
Stenson, 9 under.
The hunt was on, McIlroy the prey at 12 under, tied with Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger for the lead.
“I was looking a bit at the leaderboard out there today and see where I was and see what I needed to do to try and retain my advantage going into tomorrow,” McIlroy said.
With the star-studded footsteps collectively on McIlroy’s rear, the Ulsterman missed that birdie putt on 17. But, as he did all day, McIlroy found a way to keep himself on top of the 96th PGA Championship leaderboard.
He piped a drive down the middle of the 18th fairway, hit a thin 5-iron from a wet lie into a greenside bunker, but managed to get up and down – draining a 12-footer to do so – to take the outright lead at 13 under behind a 4-under 67.
But, unlike his previous three major championships when he held 54-hole leads of eight, six and three, McIlroy will need to fend off one of the best leaderboards in recent major history – challenging that of the 2013 Open Championship that featured Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott.
Rory Runaway? Exit stage right. Sunday Showdown? Welcome to the soggy party.
“This one’s out there for the taking, for sure,” Rickie Fowler said after a 4-under 67 left him two shots back of McIlroy.
A day after dismissing the stereotype that he can only win majors on soft courses and with big Sunday leads, McIlroy isn’t shying away from the dogfight that will ensue Sunday in Kentucky.
“I’ll take a win any way it comes. If that means having to scrap it out with a couple people coming down the stretch or if I can give myself some sort of lead going down the back nine or whatever it is,” said McIlroy.
This time, it won’t just be a “couple people” as it was at Royal Liverpool in July, with Fowler and Sergio Garcia nearly erasing McIlroy’s six-shot advantage Sunday.
It’ll involve a man who has finished in the top five in the year’s first three majors in Fowler.
It’ll involve a man who has five major titles (including the 2005 PGA), has won a Ryder Cup on this course and says that his game is moments from clicking in Phil Mickelson.
It’ll involve a man who always seems to be in contention Sunday at majors and is just three shots back in Jason Day.
It’ll also involve the defending FedEx Cup champion who is looking to become the first Swede to win a major in Henrik Stenson.
It’ll involve the 2010 Open Championship winner who has the ability to go on birdie blitzes in Louis Oosthuizen.
It’ll involve eight players within four shots of the lead.
“I feel like I’m really confident right now no matter who is on that leaderboard; I feel like I have a pretty good chance in beating them,” said McIlroy.
McIlroy’s stats back up his bold words, as the 25-year-old has held the lead in seven of his last 11 competitive rounds – including wire-to-wire at Hoylake, the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone and rounds here Friday and Saturday. He’s also 45 under during those 11 rounds and 24 under in this year’s majors.
In his three major victories, McIlroy was 16 under (2011, U.S. Open at Congressional), 13 under (2012, PGA Championship at Kiawah) and 17 under (2014, Open Championship at Royal Liverpool). So this week definitely falls in line with McIlroy’s modus operandi.
“I’m playing a guy that’s won the last two weeks he’s played,” said Mickelson, who has yet to record a top 10 on the PGA Tour this season. “That’s a huge disadvantage because I haven’t been in the heat. I haven’t been in that position this year and I’m certainly going to feel some pressure tomorrow, because I want to have an opportunity to make up for the entire year in one round.”
But Mickelson might have received a break, as he’ll have a comfort pairing tomorrow with Fowler, a good friend and consistent partner in early-week “games” before majors.
Fowler’s caddie, Joe Skovron, pointed to a Tuesday “game” at the Masters earlier this year alongside Mickelson that has led to Fowler’s sudden emergence on the major championship scene.
“He hasn’t looked back since,” said Skovron. “And playing with Phil, that’s going to be fun. They like playing with each other.”
Fowler doesn’t mind trading blows with friends – with Mickelson and McIlroy in that inner circle.
“I prefer to play with friends, guys that I’m close with,” said Fowler, who has broken par in 10 of 15 major rounds in 2014, going a cumulative 29 under, five better than McIlroy.
“If (Mickelson) and I are able to get off to some good starts, we’re able to feed off each other and kind of push each other along.”
Fowler hasn’t need much pushing at the majors this year, breaking 70 in his last seven rounds, going 69-69-68-67 at Hoylake, and 69-66-67 this week. Tiger Woods has only run off seven consecutive rounds in the 60s in majors once, that involving the PGA at Valhalla in 2000.
“(Rory is) up there as one of the longer guys in the driving category right now, and he’s probably been driving it some of the straightest the past few weeks,” said Fowler. “So if he continues to do that, he’s not going to back up and we are definitely going to have to go out and who him that we around.”
The future of golf proved to be around in force Saturday, providing a scintillating preview before what promises to be a blockbuster conclusion Sunday.