Rory McIlroy in raptures as he finds the magic is on his side again at US PGA Championship
Defending champion finishes with two birdies to put himself back in the hunt at Oak Hill
They are the twin body guards of Oak Hill, 17 and 18, the two hardest holes on the course ready to biff any chancer that gets out of line on the way in. Well, on a glorious afternoon yesterday it was Rory McIlroy who was dishing the punishment, birdying both to give himself an outside chance of retaining his US PGA Championship.
McIlroy’s 67 was his lowest of the week and took him to three under par. With Jim Furyk leading on nine under, McIlroy will have to touch the magic again today, but as history teaches us, most recently at The Open, where Phil Mickelson prevailed from five in arrears, no door is closed in this business. Moreover, after a day in which the leaders struggled to establish hegemony, McIlroy has only six players ahead of him.
It is a while since we have witnessed the McIlroy fist pump but out it came as his chip rolled in at the last, a short right hander to remind the field of the perils of dropping their guard. “Come on he screamed.” Well he might. He brought the penultimate hole to its knees with a putt all of 50 feet. You might say he was pleased to add a little substance to his pre-match claims of returning vitality. “It was good to feel that sort of rush again. Making a birdie at 17 is like an eagle and then to follow it up with another on the last is even better,” he said. “I know this is a major championship and it’s a bit different but I felt good enough about my game to go out there and post a good one today and at least give myself a chance.”
Lee Westwood felt equally optimistic after a round of 68 left him on the same three under total and once again in the running for that maiden major. Unlike the Open championship, where he led into the last round, he is coming from the pack here. “My game is strong and getting better every day. I feel like I'm getting more control on the golf ball. I'm definitely hitting the ball better than I was at Muirfield. Another Sunday and another chance,” he said.
Not, sadly, a mantra available to Justin Rose, who experienced a catastrophic outward nine, covering in 42 strokes a sequence of holes he conquered in 29 the day before. Rose steadied on the back nine but at one over par is a long way from adding to his US Open crown this afternoon. The same can be said of Tiger Woods. One week after taking down Firestone with an awesome 61 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a tournament he would walk by seven shots, Woods managed only one birdie in a round of 73 to end all talk of a 15th major this term.
“It was hard for me. I didn't play very well,” Woods said. “I didn't hit it very good, didn't make anything, kept blocking every putt. So it was a tough day. I just haven't got my takeaway right. Just one of those weeks where it's just a fraction off, and a fraction off on a set-up like this, it's going to cost me.” A consensus is forming around the theory that after five years without a major victory, Woods is struggling with the pressure of chasing down Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 majors. That, and the degree of difficulty associated with major tracks, means the big victories are beyond him now. He only wins on courses he likes, that suit his eye. Right now that looks a powerful argument and remains irrefutable until he crosses the line.
Tiger Woods reacts to a missed putt on the fourth green during his third round at Oak Hill (Getty)
America’s other great poster boy, Mickelson, was all over the place, typified by his saga at the short par-4, 14th, at which he chose driver to reach the green in one. He missed. From the rough he chipped across the green to more rough, and then repeated the exercise. Having finally found the putting surface, his bogey putt lipped out from three feet for a double. At the next hole he was in the water off the tee for another bogey. At 16 he was hacking out of the rough yet again after a wayward tee shot. He eventually signed for a 78, leaving him second last on ten over par.
Into the gap left by Woods and Mickelson stepped Jason Dufner, who is in every sense the anti-Woods; unheralded, unassuming and distinctly unglamorous. A bottom lip that protrudes beneath a mass of unruly hair is made for chewing grass; his generous girth goes boldly before him. His sloth-like appearance has even given rise to a craze, Dufnering, which involves sitting slumped against a wall, legs out front, with a vacant expression cast across the face. All of this is augmented by a pre swing routine that features as many as eight wiggles of the club at address before pulling the trigger.
Dufner lowered the course record to 63 on Friday to lead by two on nine under par. He suspected Saturday might be different and he was right. Oak Hill was not the supine lion cub it had been on Friday but the full beast, feasting on the frail. Dufner was round in 71 to fall one off the lead. Adam Scott shot a 72 to start four back today alongside Steve Stricker, who carded a 70.
Poulter finds the bright side
If ever there was a deflating day of disappointed ambitions and a reality check that slaps a person in the face, it was yesterday for Ian Poulter. He started the day 10 shots off the pace but optimistic he could mount a challenge of some kind in the US PGA Championship.
"Saturday morning at the last major of the year. Feels like a great day to make a run," he mused before his late morning tee-off. Things turned out rather differently. By the time he walked off the third green, he had three bogeys on his card and had slipped to four over.
"I was absolutely shit today," he moaned on Twitter after finishing with two double bogeys in the last four holes of a seven-over-par 77. "The best news is I get back to Orlando really early afternoon to see my wife and kids. Always a bright side."
Slice of luck for Blixt
Someone check the Wanamaker Trophy. The name Jonas Blixt might already be on it. If the Swede does get home today, and he starts on six under par, it will be in no small part as a result of the outrageous fortune he encountered at the last when his errant tee shot flew straight into the back pocket of a spectator. A free drop followed, then a birdie.
You’re right. Blixt had never done that before, but he had seen something similar. “A friend of my father hit someone in the ass one day. The first thing that came out of his mouth? Did it plug? He didn't have to play from there.”
His playing partner Lee Westwood was equally disbelieving. “I couldn't get a card and a pencil in my back pocket, never mind a golf ball. So he's doing well to catch that on the fly, that gentleman. The Yankees should sign him up.”
Jason Dufner equalled the major record with a 63 in the second round at Oak Hill. He is the 24th player to achieve the feat, with Greg Norman and Vijay Singh having done it twice.
Nick Price 1986
Greg Norman 1996
Johnny Miller 1973
Jack Nicklaus 1980
Tom Weiskopf 1980
Vijay Singh 2003
Mark Hayes 1977
Isao Aoki 1980
Greg Norman 1986
Paul Broadhurst 1990
Jodie Mudd 1991
Nick Faldo 1993
Payne Stewart 1993
Rory McIlroy 2010
US PGA Championship
Bruce Crampton 1975
Raymond Floyd 1982
Gary Player 1984
Vijay Singh 1993
Michael Bradley 1995
Brad Faxon 1995
Jose Maria Olazabal 2000
Mark O'Meara 2001
Thomas Bjorn 2005
Tiger Woods 2007
Steve Stricker 2011
Jason Dufner 2013
Rory McIlroy (NIrl) 69 71 67
Dustin Johnson (US) 72 71 65
Kevin Streelman (US) 70 72 66
Marc Warren (Sco) 74 67 68
David Toms (US) 71 69 69
Francesco Molinari (It) 72 68 70
Marc Leishman (Aus) 70 70 70
Luke Guthrie (US) 71 71 69
Boo Weekley (US) 72 69 70
Scott Jamieson (Sco) 69 72 70
Rafael Cabrera-Belo (Sp) 68 75 69
K J Choi (S Kor) 76 65 71
Chris Kirk (US) 71 69 73
Hideki Matsuyama (Japan) 72 68 73
Ryan Moore (US) 69 71 73
Brandt Snedeker (US) 70 73 70
Brendon De Jonge (Zim) 71 71 71
David Hearn (Can) 66 76 71
Ken Duke (US) 75 68 70
Josh Teater (US) 71 71 71
Keegan Bradley (US) 69 72 72
Ryan Palmer (US) 73 70 71
Brooks Koepka (US) 71 72 71
Vijay Singh (Fij) 70 72 72
Tiger Woods (US) 71 70 73
D A Points (US) 73 70 72
Harris English (US) 74 69 72
J J Henry (US) 71 71 73
Thorbjorn Olesen (Den) 71 70 74
John Senden (Aus) 72 70 73
Matteo Manassero (It) 72 69 74
Danny Willett (Eng) 73 70 72
Peter Hanson (Swe) 72 69 74
Matt Jones (Aus) 72 71 73
Scott Stallings (US) 73 70 73
John Merrick (US) 75 68 73
Tommy Gainey (US) 69 74 73
Darren Clarke (N Irl) 69 73 74
Thongchai Jaidee (Thai) 70 71 75
Shane Lowry (Rep of Ire) 71 70 75
Ben Curtis (US) 73 70 74
Ian Poulter (Eng) 70 71 77
Stephen Gallacher (Sco) 75 68 76
Phil Mickelson (US) 71 71 78
Gary Woodland (US) 73 70 80
Jason Dufner (US) 68 63
Adam Scott (Aus) 65 68; Matt Kuchar (US) 67 66; Jim Furyk (US) 65 68
Justin Rose (Eng) 68 66; Henrik Stenson (Swe) 68 66
Robert Garrigus (US) 67 68; Steve Stricker (US) 68 67
Webb Simpson (US) 72 64; Martin Kaymer (Ger) 68 68; Charley Hoffman (US) 69 67; Marcus Fraser (Aus) 67 69
Sergio Garcia (Sp) 69 68; Roberto Castro (US) 68 69
Scott Piercy (US) 67 71; Jason Day (Aus) 67 71; Hunter Mahan (US) 70 68; Rickie Fowler (US) 70 68; Bill Haas (US) 68 70; David Lynn (Eng) 69 69; Jonas Blixt (Swe) 68 70
Lee Westwood (Eng) 66 73; Zach Johnson (US) 69 70; Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Thai) 68 71; Paul Casey (Eng) 67 72; Michael Thompson (US) 72 67; Graeme McDowell (N Ire) 70 69
Ryo Ishikawa (Japan) 69 71; Tim Clark (SA) 69 71; Miguel Angel Jimenez (Sp) 68 72
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