KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Mother Nature 2, PGA Championship 1, with the rubber match awaiting on what promises to be a marathon Sunday.
Through three days Kiawah Island, site of the famed 1991 “War by the Shore” Ryder Cup, has become home to the Duel against Doppler Radar. Weather reports have replaced leaderboards in importance as winds sent scores soaring to a record stroke average (78) on Friday and on Saturday it was a fast-moving storm that did the damage.
It seemed strangely apropos that Rory McIlroy, who won his first major on a saturated layout (Congressional), roared out of the gates with a 4-under 32 front nine to grab a share of the lead with Vijay Singh almost in tandem with a line of thunderstorms that halted play and set up a 29-hole Sunday to decide the year’s final major.
Singh was playing the par-3 eighth hole when the horn echoed through Kiawah’s dunes at just before 5 p.m., while McIlroy had just made the turn on a course softened further by overnight rains and winds that were on the playable side of Friday’s gale.
Round 3 play is scheduled to resume at 7:45 a.m. on Sunday followed by the final turn, which will feature a two-tee start and threesomes.
McIlroy, who hasn’t finished better than 25th in a major since last year’s U.S. Open, likely would have preferred to play on. The Ulsterman birdied three of his first five holes and pulled into a tie with Singh with his fifth birdie of the day at No. 7.
“It was a great start, the start that I was looking to get off to,” said McIlroy, who bogeyed his last hole (No. 9) and avoided damage at the par-4 third when his tee shot nestled into the branch of what can best be described as a Pete Dye tree. “It’s nice going into the final day, if we get it finished, in a great position.”
If McIlroy ultimately emerges from the wind and rain with his second major, historians will likely remember his stellar Saturday start, but it was his persistence on Friday that should receive equal billing.
Four over through 14 holes, McIlroy rallied in the worst of the Round 2 tempest to post a 75 and keep pace with the leaders. In the not so distant past that start may have caused the worst kind of attitude adjustment but his work with short game guru Dave Stockton Sr. has softened that edge in recent weeks.
“We made a slight adjustment to my routine and my stroke, and it made a huge difference last week. I felt so much better on the greens than I did at the Open,” McIlroy said. “(Stockton) sort of just said to me, ‘You know, just go out there and have fun and enjoy it and smile.’ That's something that I've really tried to do the last two weeks, and it's definitely helped.”
On Saturday Singh wasn’t doing much smiling. With all the congeniality of an unwanted blind date the Fijian and Tiger Woods set out in the anchor match. On the 32 occasions Woods and Singh have been paired together on the PGA Tour Woods holds a 21-8-3 advantage.
Although not a complete game, Singh should add one to the “win” column following Saturday’s abbreviated frame. He birdied the first and seventh, had little to say to his playing partner and held a share of the lead when he was whisked to safety. While Woods missed three makeable putts in his first three holes, hit three fans with errant shots and signed almost as many gloves as Phil Mickelson on his way to a 3-over-par start.
To make matters worse, when players retreated to the clubhouse they were greeted by a re-air of the 2009 PGA, exactly what Woods needed: another poor putting performance to watch.
“I got off to a rough start today and couldn’t get anything going,” said Woods, who had an 8-footer for par on the eighth hole and was five strokes back when Mother Nature began turning little puddles into big ones late in the afternoon. “I’ll come back tomorrow morning and see what happens. There are a lot of holes left to play.”
Sunday will not be a two-man race, and Saturday’s delay was a timely TO for the world No. 2, but if a player is going to emerge from a high-profile pack to challenge Singh and McIlroy it seems Stevie Williams’ new boss has a better chance.
Adam Scott matched McIlroy with an outward 32 that featured four birdies over his final five holes of the day. If the Aussie is still reeling from Lytham he’s hiding it well.
Since undergoing an extreme Grand Slam makeover at the start of the 2011 season – new putter, new caddie, new attitude for the majors – the perennial also-ran in the game’s biggest events has four top-10 finishes, and two runner-up showings. In the 38 installments before that shift he had a total of four top 10s and no runner-ups.
His Open meltdown last month hasn’t changed that reality, just the subtext surrounding it.
“I did come down (to Kiawah) last Monday, Tuesday before Bridgestone to play here and felt that was really worthwhile,” said Scott, who opened with a 68 and survived Friday with a 75. “That's part of my thing is coming in before and getting a really good understanding of the course before I get here tournament week.”
The only thing we’ve learned about Kiawah through 2 ½ frames is that Mother Nature, more so than the players, will likely have the ultimate say at “Glory’s Last Shot.”