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McIlroy maturing on and off course

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Rory McIlroy earned his maiden PGA Tour victory at Quail Hollow in 2010 at the age of 20, he was but a boy.

Today, two years later and one day after turning 23, McIlroy is still a boy. But with each passing year, each fairway he finds, each sub-par round he posts and each lesson he learns, McIlroy continues to blossom into a man. A man who is both talented and vulnerable. Proud and humble.

After opening with 70-68, McIlroy fired a third-round 66 that vaulted him within two shots of the lead through 54 holes at the Wells Fargo Championship. His round included eight birdies and only two bogeys; one after he failed to get up and down at the par-3 sixth and the second when he missed a 4-foot putt at the par-4 16th.

His bogey at 16 came after a monstrous – and very manly – 377-yard drive. His approach took dead aim at the pin and came to rest 15 feet away. His birdie attempt hit the hole and rolled 4 feet past. The 4-footer coming back for par lipped out. Tap-in for bogey. Talent and vulnerability.

McIlroy sits two back of Webb Simpson headed into Sunday’s final round but finds himself closer than where he was on the eve of the final round in 2010. Two years ago, he trailed the 54-hole leader by four. McIlroy posted a 62 that Sunday that included birdies on his final three holes en route to a four-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson.

McIlroy hopes he doesn’t have to work that hard again this year.

“Hopefully I won’t have to finish with three 3s to win tomorrow,” McIlroy said. “I’ve had some great experiences on this course. Hopefully I can make a few more tomorrow.”

To say McIlroy fancies Quail Hollow is an understatement. His final-round 62 in 2010 still stands as the course record. Saturday’s round wasn’t quite as low, but included eight fairways, 16 greens and 27 putts.

“I really like this style course,” McIlroy said. “Tree-lined golf courses that really appeal to me, and (I’m) just happy to be back here.”

Despite the records he’s set, despite his commanding win at the U.S. Open and despite his ping-pong match with Luke Donald for the golf world’s highest perch, McIlroy says he lacks an intimidation factor held by some of the game’s other greatest players, such as that which Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els possess.

“Maybe that comes with time,” McIlroy said. “ I don’t think I’m quite at that stature yet, but hopefully one day.”

Proud and humble.

Winning again at Quail Hollow will be no small task. Simpson, Ryan Moore and Rickie Fowler are among the names at the top of the leaderboard. But if McIlroy can continue the week’s trend, he feels pretty good about his chances.

“I felt Thursday wasn’t great, Friday was a little better and today I saw more positive signs out there.” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot to build on for tomorrow.”

Also weighing on his mind is the opportunity to regain the No. 1 ranking from Luke Donald. McIlroy needs only a top-7 finish this week to again ascend to the top.

With so much to consider, so many expectations to fulfill, any distraction would be welcomed. A warm welcoming from his family, all the better.

McIlroy turned 23 yesterday and was surprised by his parents who flew in from Florida to help their son celebrate his special day. McIlroy assures us the merriment was kept to a minimum.

“I walked in for dinner and they were sitting there,” McIlroy said. “(We had a) low-key dinner and now they’re going to hang around the weekend. It’s nice to have them here.”

It’s McIlroy’s birthday week and his chance at another Wells Fargo title, but he wants to give his parents something in return.

“Hopefully I can give (my parents) a present tomorrow.”

Alas … a boy becoming a man.