McIlroy back in the mix after 65 at Wells Fargo

Rory McIlroy during the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship.
Rory McIlroy during the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship. ( Getty Images )

Saturday, May 3, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For the most part, professional golfers provide the most accurate measuring stick for placing a value on a score or for assessing the quality of a shot.

The media, of course, are far more superficial. It’s all about star power, and thus did a circle of hysteria envelope Rory McIlroy when he safely navigated a par, par, par finish to shoot 7-under 65 in Saturday morning’s third round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

The “Rory Is Back” headlines were being readied, just as they had been Thursday when the kid from Northern Ireland opened with a 69. Of course, McIlroy being the one in possession of perspective, was still smarting over the second-round 76 that forced him into the sort of predicament he faced in Round 3: going off early and needing to put a charge into his game if he had any hope of contending.

Well, three birdies in five holes to start his day, out in 4-under 32, and in the house with 65 to move to 6 under for the tournament certainly qualifies for “putting a charge” into the festivities. But the thing is, McIlroy, though he wore a smile and felt as if he had accomplished what he had set out to do, was the study in composure, no matter that nearly every question seemed to suggest that he was in command of this tournament.

“In the mix,” said McIlroy, seemingly agreeing with a reporter’s suggestion. He had, after all, made the cut on the number (1-over 145) and started the third round 10 shots off the lead. Now, as he stood outside the scorer’s room, he was three out of a share of the lead. But he didn’t share the depths of euphoria that others seemed to.

Why?

“It depends on what the guys are going to do this afternoon,” he said.

McIlroy had just had an up-close-and-personal look at The Quail Hollow Club, considered it a very favorable setup, and seemed to be of the mindset that low scores were going to be the story of the day.

Ah, proof again that players know best, because a short time later, Mark Wilson and Pat Perez both came home in 66 and barely had McIlroy headed to the parking lot to head out of Quail Hollow when rumbles started pouring in. Phil Mickelson had birdied four straight holes on the front.

Then, more commotion. Mickelson had eagled the par-5 seventh and birdied the par-4 eighth to go out in 29. Oh, and Brendon de Jonge, Mickelson’s playing competitor, had gone to the turn in 32.

Though McIlroy was long gone by then, one could almost imagine him shaking his head and wearing a knowing smile. He had seen this coming.

Still, no matter how the rest of the way would play out, McIlroy was in great spirits. Saturday and Thursday were true reflections of the state of his game. Friday’s bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey stretch early and 31-putt effort? “I knew I wasn’t going to play that bad again,” he said.

He was right, and it’s an easy answer to show the difference between Friday and Saturday. Whereas he played Nos. 2, 3, and 4 in 5 over in Round 2, McIlroy went 1 under on them Saturday morning. He birdied all four par 5s, required just 25 putts and continued to crush his driver. McIlroy did bogey the par-4 ninth, but he came right back with a birdie at the par-5 10th, added birdies at 14 and 15, then seemed to hit one of his best shots of the day, a 141-yard wedge into the 16th green after a 366-yard drive.

Only thing was, it was too good – his shot hit the green and seemed destined to check within a few feet, except that it hit the flagstick and caromed back to about 18 feet. He missed that birdie try, but kept a good grip on perspective. “It was a great shot, maybe a little unfortunate, but if I keep hitting wedge shots like that I’m not going to complain.

The 65 immediately got folks conjuring up memories of 2010, when McIlroy also made the cut on the number, tossed down a third-round 66, then blitzed Quail Hollow with a Sunday 62 to win for the first time on the PGA Tour. Ah, but so much has happened since that memorable Sunday: a U.S. Open victory in 2011, a PGA Championship title in 2012, five more PGA Tour triumphs in all, a lengthy run at No. 1, then a rough 2013 season followed by an indifferent start to 2014. The sum of it all is a more mature, far wiser McIlroy than the kid from Holywood who turned pro at age 18.

He may have lost his way, but not his spirit.

“Whenever you go through a little spell where you’re not playing so well, it’s just nice to see some good golf again, some good shots,” McIlroy said.

“It was more of a struggle last year to get back to where I wanted to be because there was a whole lot of things going on and it wasn’t (just) that I wasn’t swinging well or I wasn’t this. It’s just nice to whenever you start to see the shots again and you hit them and you see putts going in.”

McIlroy could have bottled those sentiments and offered them up for others who were hitting so many good shots and burying so many great putts on this most productive of scoring days. But he would leave Quail Hollow for others, having done his work for the day.

Brilliant work, that is.