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Jordan Spieth served notice in the third round of the US PGA Championship here on Saturday that he is not about to give up on achieving his career grand slam dream without a fight. In contrast, however, Rory McIlroy’s mission to relaunch his major odyssey faded with barely a whimper.
Spieth began the day nine off the overnight lead shared by fellow American Phil Mickelson and South African Louis Oosthuizen. It appeared a forlorn pursuit for the 27-year-old as he tried to chase down the Wanamaker Trophy to become just the sixth player in history to complete male golf’s full set, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods in the pantheon.
But Spieth is one of the gutsiest pros out there and on the back of his recent resurgence - which featured him winning his first tournament in four years last month before finishing third at The Masters - he tore into The Ocean Course.
Granted, with the conditions much calmer, this was the easiest Pete Dye’s creation had played all week, but still danger lurks. Spieth's 68 only contained one bogey - on the 17th - and on level par, his admirers can still fantasise, even if it is far-fetched.
There was a 13-footer for par on the 1st and although he missed a nine-footer for birdie on the par-five 2nd, a 30-footer on the par-four 3rd handed him his first birdie. On the par-three 5th he chipped in and the momentum was his. Except, he lipped out on the 6th, missed a four-footer for a four on the par-five 7th and when a 15-footer on the 8th somehow stayed above ground, it seemed to be a case of what-could-have-been.
Maybe it still was, despite another chip in on the 10th and an eight-footer for birdie on the 11th. Spieth required everything to drop. There were two fine par saves on the 14th and 15th - the first courtesy of an exquisite chip to 18 inches from the rough and the second with a courageous 16-footer - and there was a 15-footer on the par-five 16th. At that stage Spieth was only four off the pace, with the leaders going off.
The Ocean Course was on the brink of witnessing its first bogey-free round of the 103rd US PGA. Until the 17th struck, that is. The treacherous par-three with water down the right, inevitably forces the golfer to look left and so Spieth pulled it. This time could not convert the 18-footer for par, but after the par up the 18th that club still deserved pride of place in Spieth’s bag after wildly misbehaving in the first two rounds. There were only 23 putts on his scorecard.
By now, McIlroy looked resigned to be bunched among the also-rans. His very first shot of the round was clipped into the water and although he pulled that one back with a birdie on the 9th to go out in level-par 36, the inward half was appalling. It began with another wayward tee-shot to the right, requiring a penalty drop from “the native area” - and on the par-five 11th, he laboured up the left side, making another bogey.
That made him four-over for the week on the par fives - he was eight-under for the par fives here in 2012 when he prevailed by eight. He did go on to birdie the 16th. Too little too late. A 74 means he is on five-over and without a prayer.
Bob MacIntyre, the 24-year-old from Scotland, is one better on four-over after a level-par 72, featuring two birdies and two bogeys. This is the fifth major in which the left-hander has competed and he has made the cut in each of them. But it says much about this young man’s ambition that he was hardly doing cartwheels.
“I've not challenged in a major yet,” he said. “So although I’m making cuts, I feel like I'm miles off where I want to be. I want to be challenging on a Sunday, and this weekend, I'm just making up the numbers. But I really like this place. You've got room to manouevre the ball which I love.
Indeed, this is a wonderful venue and there should be no shock whatsoever that the PGA of America is planning or returning here with this event in 2030 and also with another Ryder Cup in the future. Webb Simpson, the world No 10, shot a three-under 69 too move to two-over and explained afterwards why it is still a challenge even when the gusts are down. “Conditions were good and we didn't have much wind at all on the front,” he said. “But we still had hurt.”
Simpson was one of those who were against the introduction of the range-finders here. This is the first major - indeed, the first big-time professional tournament of any guise - to allow distance-measuring devices in any competition and it created a sizeable amount of controversy in the build-up. However, Simpson has changed his view.
“I was definitely against it coming in but we have seen how there's a lot of situation where is it helps,” he said. “I was in the right rough on 10 yesterday and it's a funky angle to that back left pin and my rangefinder got about six yards different than what we had come up with.
“Then, if they move the tee up, instead of walking it off and calculating it in the yardage book, we're just able to shoot it. I was one of those old-school guys thinking we're going to need both numbers still, it's going to slow down play. But I actually I do think it's been a good thing. The more we did it each round, the more I like it.”
Should they now permit it on the PGA Tour? “It's a great question,” Simpson said. “I could see the Tour thinking we do it all the time when we're home, we do it in pro-ams, so we might as well let us keep doing the same things, especially since no one has advantage over the other.”