PITTSFORD, N.Y. – There have been precious few moments of elation this season for Rory McIlroy.
The closing 65 at Doral, and the Sunday 66 in San Antonio, and the opening 66 at The Players, and then there was …
Well, yeah, that might be it.
Like we said, precious few.
Saturday at Oak Hill offered another of those rousing moments, and his third-round 67 here positioned him to make an improbable run at his third major title.
First, he drained a 45-footer for birdie on 17. Then, after sending his tee shot into the left trees, near a garbage bin, he roped a 4-iron under a tree and over the green, only to chip it in for a most unlikely – and very significant – 3-3 finish.
When his third shot tumbled into the cup, he squatted, punched the air and roared. After plucking his ball out of the hole, he flung it into the grandstands while the fans screamed, “Ror-ee! Ror-ee!” Of all the images of McIlroy this season – the slumped shoulders, the Honda walk-off, the bent club – this, too, belongs in the highlight reel.
Chin up, shoulders back, the beleaguered world No. 3 strutted all the way to the clubhouse.
“It was good to feel the sort of rush again,” he said afterward.
Oak Hill may still be soft and receptive, but it has grown increasingly difficult because of tucked hole locations and swirling winds. McIlroy figures he gained at least three shots on the field with his birdie-birdie finish, and his 3-under 207 has him in contention heading into the final day.
It’s worth noting, of course, that there was a time Friday when McIlroy didn’t even look like he would even still be in the tournament. Playing in a downpour, he was 5 over for the round and outside the projected cut line. But he buckled down and reeled off four birdies in a six-hole stretch, salvaging a 71 and ensuring that he’d at least stick around for the weekend.
“It makes me feel good,” he said Friday, “because maybe in the middle of the season or a couple of months ago I wouldn’t have been standing here. I would have been going home. It’s good to be able to do that and fight back, and it makes you feel good about yourself.”
Everyone expected Oak Hill to punch back at some point; after all, in five previous majors contested here, only 10 players have finished under par after 72 holes. So it was Saturday that the hole locations were cut near the edges, the fairways were finally running out, and the greens were picking up pace.
Nevertheless, McIlroy’s goal was twin 65s on the weekend, and for the first time in months he possessed the self-belief that he would pull it off.
And why not?
Each time he thinks he’s too far behind, McIlroy dives into his memory bank and recalls his incredible finish at Quail Hollow just three years ago: from making the cut on the number (and being nine shots behind) to winning by four, the result of a 66-62 weekend.
Sure, that was a long time ago, before he won two majors, or began dating a tennis superstar, or signed a mega-deal with Nike.
But that aggressive, go-low mentality is as Rory McIlroy as his curly brown hair and Irish lilt.
Hitting the necessary shots has proved a far more elusive task this season, however, while he’s breaking in 14 new clubs and grappling with the newfound expectations that come from being No. 1 at age 23 and winning a pair of majors by eight shots apiece.
It’s why, in the run-up to this PGA, he studied clips from last year’s romp at Kiawah Island, when he made winning look so effortless.
“More than anything,” he said, “it was to remind you how good you can be.”
Saturday’sround offered still another reminder that he’s close to regaining that winning form.