LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One of those big, high, soaring drives, this was not. Rory McIlroy’s tee shot on the 292-yard fourth hole Saturday was yanked low and left, 50 yards from its intended target. The ball careened past unsuspecting gallery members and into Floyds Fork.
McIlroy returned the brand-new 3-wood to his bag, mouth agape and eyes wide, a look that screamed: What the hell was that?
Yep, the prettiest swinger in golf had to get a little dirty in the third round of this PGA Championship, and it had little to do with his sloshing through the muddy walkways at Valhalla.
There was the all-world par save on 4. The gutsy flop shot on 9. The blind pitch on 11. The slippery bunker shot on 14.
All of that in a three-hour span, and yet McIlroy lost the outright lead for only about 10 seconds – or as long as it takes to type “Bernd Wiesberger”.
Three birdies in his last four holes – a finishing kick reminiscent of his third round at Hoylake – sent McIlroy to 13-under 200 and gave him a one-shot lead over the relative unknown from Austria.
Boy Wonder’s first three major titles were formalities. Not this time.
To prevail here, McIlroy will need more of the doggedness that he displayed Saturday, when he arrived with less than his best stuff, withstood challenges from his A-list pursuers and still nosed ahead for a one-shot cushion through 54 holes.
“A 67 that way is more pleasing than a 67 hitting every green and feeling like you’ve missed every putt,” he said.
Appearing on center stage for nearly an entire month can take its toll.
Mentally, a player deals with the constant pressure to perform, the feeling of being targeted, the therapy sessions each night in the press room.
Physically, it’s more than just a sustained run of excellence. Being in this position also throws off the everyday routine, with the agonizing waits until 3 p.m. and late evenings with all of the post-round responsibilities.
The 25-year-old McIlroy shows no signs of mental fatigue, and the proof is in his scorecard. Though not blemish-free, it is without compounded mistakes.
“I’ve got one more day,” he said. “I’ve got one more day to give it everything I have.”
For years, Tiger Woods’ competition would crumble in his presence, an entire generation demoralized by his dominance.
McIlroy’s intimidation is more visual than physical. Drives that fly 330, short irons that cover the flag, putts that repeatedly tumble into the cup – how can you top that?
With each passing hole, he applies pressure on his opponents – the pressure to go low on a championship course. Mistake-free golf is rare enough. Try playing it on a major Sunday, with everything at stake.
“It gets tougher for the leaders on the last day usually,” Steve Stricker said. “But we’ve got some guys that are immune to that at times, like Rory.”
“He’s not going to back up,” Rickie Fowler said. “If someone is going to beat him, they’re going to earn it.”
Just once in his career has McIlroy played prevent defense, and he vowed never to do so again. It was the final round of the 2011 Masters, where a four-shot cushion vanished during a final-round 80.
“I don’t think you can protect a lead,” he said.
He didn’t play defensively Saturday, but there still was no separation.
Forget what the scorecard said: Par in the third round was 69, not 71. After more than an inch of rain, Valhalla’s already generous fairways played even wider, and the greens reacted like a dartboard. Nearly every player was taking it deep, yet McIlroy stood on the 15th tee just 1 under for the day.
That changed in a hurry: He unleashed a 300-yard drive, knocked a 9-iron to 20 feet and buried the putt. Birdie.
At 16, he summoned “two of the best shots I hit all day” – a 337-yard rocket, then a 171-yard 9-iron to 2 feet. Birdie.
And on the par-5 finisher, after a thin 5-iron came up short in the bunker, he splashed out and rimmed in an 8-foot birdie putt to eke ahead of Wiesberger (65).
Seven of his drives traveled over 300 yards (an impressive feat, given the hit-and-stop conditions). Seven approaches were stuffed inside 20 feet. And McIlroy one-putted nine of his last 12 greens, taking only 25 total for the round.
As Martin Kaymer marveled Friday, “There’s nothing wrong with his game.”
“I feel like I’m really confident right now no matter who is on that leaderboard,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I have a pretty good chance of beating them.”
Even if it means getting a little dirty.