KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The 94th PGA Championship is far from over, but following his second 5-under 67 of the week -- that saw him hit 11 fairways, 13 greens and need just 26 putts -- Rory McIlroy looks to be in a perfect position to win his second major championship at the ripe age of 23.
After tearing the front nine apart on Saturday afternoon with five birdies in his first nine holes, to move into a tie for the lead with Vijay Singh, a strong storm cell threatened to derail his momentum. Players were pulled off the course at 4:50 p.m. before officials decided to cancel play for the day at 6:45 p.m.
When McIlroy returned to the course at 7:45 a.m. Sunday to continue his round, he looked like a completely different golfer from the one who had a major championship swagger to him Saturday. He looked tight, missing a couple of makeable birdie putts in his first three holes that led you to wonder if the putter was going to be a problem once again, after he missed an 8-footer for par on the par-4 13th to drop into a tie for the lead.
However, despite the hiccup, McIlroy continued to fire at the flag, rolling in back-to-back birdie putts on the 15th and 16th to take a three-shot lead over Carl Pettersson that he never relinquished.
"I thought [Sunday] was just a continuation of how I played yesterday afternoon," McIlroy said after his round. "I struck the ball beautifully from tee to green, same thing on Thursday, as well. Just one more round like that, and I'll be happy."
McIlroy is no stranger to being in the lead at a major championship, but this time around it could be a little different. Since he won the U.S. Open last year by an astounding eight shots, only one 54-hole leader at a major championship -- Darren Clarke at the 2011 British Open -- has gone on to win.
With near-perfect weather conditions expected for the final round, McIlroy likely won't have to worry about the elements. That should leave him with only one thing to concentrate on when he steps on the first tee later Sunday afternoon: closing the deal.
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He's managed to do it before, going wire-to-wire to win the U.S. Open, but he hasn't been without the occasional blow-up round at a major over the years. Of course, there's the collapse at the 2011 Masters, where he squandered a four-shot lead going into the final round. And there's the third-round 77 at the 2012 Masters, when he was just one shot back of the lead.
There's no question McIlroy has some major championship skeletons in his closet to go along with his U.S. Open trophy. But the way he's played through three rounds, you have to like his chances of taking home his first Wanamaker Trophy -- especially if he can stick to his game plan over the final 18 holes.
"I haven't played aggressive so far," McIlroy said. "I've went for a few pins when I feel like I'm comfortable, but I played away from a few pins on the back nine this morning because the risk is just not worth it."
With a three-shot lead, McIlroy won't have to press Sunday afternoon. If anything, he can let the rest of the field come to him. A golfer vying for his first major championship likely wouldn't have that mindset, but McIlroy's been here before. He knows what it takes to win, and lose, a major championship.
Sometimes going through the highest highs and the lowest lows can make you stronger. McIlroy certainly believes all of his major championship moments over the last couple of years, good and bad, have made him better, stronger, and more prepared for what lies ahead at the PGA Championship.
"I learned a lot from the Masters last year," McIlroy said, "and that's definitely something that I can think back to and draw on some of those memories, and some of the feeling I had at Congressional, as well, just to go right -- because you obviously know, you realize you might not feel the same or your anxiety level is a little bit higher, and at least being in that position before, I'll know what to do again."
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