LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Thank you, Rory McIlroy, for not making the 96th PGA Championship a foregone conclusion.
As much as the Northern Irishman wanted to add this PGA to his boat race highlight reel, the combination of relatively pedestrian play by the world No. 1 and a golf course softened to perfection by two days of incessant rain has produced Grand Slam gridlock.
He’s won major championships from two time zones ahead and a World Golf Championship from a field goal back. On Sunday at Valhalla Golf Club, McIlroy will try to add to his Grand Slam total from a crowed elevator.
What was shaping up to be another coronation now has all the markings of a Sunday brawl between some of the game’s true heavyweights, a marquee that includes Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Phil Mickelson.
Not a Bob May in the bunch.
Well, there was a Bernd Wiesberger, but with apologies to the man from Vienna – that’s Austria not Virginia – there are no substitutes for star power, and on Day 3 substance and style coalesced into a handsome crowd.
“Of course it’s different,” said McIlroy, who maintained his lead thanks to a third-round 67 that was very much un-Rory-like and left him a shot clear of Wiesberger.
“Standing on the first tee (on Sunday) is going to feel different than how it felt a month ago at Hoylake, because you don’t have that cushion. It is going to be a shootout.”
If form follows function, Saturday’s third round will be the standard for the final 18. Consider how McIlroy & Co. traded blows on a soggy layout with all the power and poetry of the Louisville Lip, known in these parts as Muhammad Ali, starting with a pair of unlikely par saves.
Day – freed from a season-long, injury-induced slump by the healing powers of a weaker grip – pulled his drive into Indiana and made a historic par with, without shoes, at the second hole.
Three holes later McIlroy got up and down from Floyd’s Fork, rolling in a crucial 11-footer to keep from dropping a shot, not to mention his momentum.
And so it went, contenders of all varieties emerged to challenge the three-time major champion from every muddy corner of Valhalla.
Fowler holed a 16-footer at the 10th to tie McIlroy at 10 under. Moments later, Ryan Palmer birdied the 11th to join the party. Day was next with a 9-footer for birdie at the 13th hole to grab a share of the spotlight.
But by the time McIlroy splashed his third shot to 7 feet for his sixth birdie of the day at the last, he found himself in familiar territory, but only by the narrowest of margins.
For a player who lapped the field at the Congressional Open in 2011 and the Kiawah PGA in 2012 and entered Sunday at last month's Open Championship six ahead, this is uncharted waters.
“I’ll win any way. I’ll take a win any way it comes,” McIlroy said. “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.”
The only comparison is the 2011 Masters, and we all know how that turned out. Earlier this week, McIlroy referenced his play at Augusta National three years ago as the last time he’d ever attempted to protect a lead, which was four strokes through three rounds.
“I’ll never do that again,” reasoned McIlroy, who imploded during the final round of the ’11 Masters on his way to a tie for 15th place.
If things continue to trend like they have for three days, he won’t be able to. After a particularly good day for scoring, if not white pants, 11 players now find themselves within five shots of the lead.
But it’s not so much the quantity of the assembled challengers as it is the quality.
A resurgent Mickelson carded his third consecutive sub-70 round (67) for just the second time this season and overcame a poor start to finish at 10 under par and three strokes behind young Rors.
As impressive as McIlroy has been the last month, Lefty was more interested in the traffic jam that had piled up atop the leaderboard.
“When it’s this many guys, I don’t even look at a leaderboard. I just go out and push it,” said Mickelson, who is vying for his first top-10 finish on Tour this season as well as a spot on September’s Ryder Cup team.
Day, who suggested a day earlier it was time to stop waiting for the major championship door to open in exchange for a more bullish approach, faded with a “sloppy” bogey at the 16th hole but still remains just three back after a third-round 69.
But it is Fowler, this season’s Mr. Major, who may be the most compelling spoiler. After largely underachieving for much of his career in the majors, swing coach Butch Harmon has tempered Fowler’s aggressive ways, shortened his backswing and turned him into a bona fide major player.
Fowler is the only player this year to post top-5 finishes in all three Grand Slam gatherings and the final round will be the first major Sunday since the Masters that he didn’t set out in the day’s final group.
Beginning the day two shots back, however, is a solid consolation prize thanks to flawless 67 on Day 3.
“I would say that leaderboard is the most jam-packed it’s been, maybe since the start of the final round at the Masters,” Fowler said. “This one’s out there for the taking, for sure. Anyone can go out and post a number tomorrow with the way the golf course is playing.”
Fowler’s take wasn’t a slight toward McIlroy, whose dominance has been unquestionable the last few weeks, just the reality of a new challenge for the Ulsterman. Unlike those walk-offs at Congressional, Kiawah Island and Royal Liverpool, there will be no room for error on Sunday.