LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rory McIlroy played the kind of golf Saturday that typically would put him in control at a major championship. Staked to a one-shot lead in the PGA Championship, he made three birdies over his last four holes for a 4-under 67.
All that did was allow him to stay in front — barely.
More rain in the morning allowed for a deluge of birdies during a third round so wild that six players had a share of the lead at some point. McIlroy could hear it. The cheers of so many birdies resounding across the back nine made him realize it was time to get it in gear.
He rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 15. His approach from 172 yards landed with a splat next to the hole on the 16th for an easy birdie, and he took a one-shot lead over Bernd Wiesberger by getting up-and-down from a front bunker on the par-5 18th.
He was at 13-under 200.
McIlroy loves the view from the top — he has won all three of his majors with the lead.
“It’s not the biggest lead I’ve ever had,” said McIlroy, who led by eight, three and six shots after 54 holes in his previous major wins. “But I’m still in control of this golf tournament. It’s a great place to be going into tomorrow.”
Sunday is shaping up as a thriller, typical of the final major of the year.
McIlroy would have reason to feel like a driver in pole position who looks into his rearview mirror at the start of the race. Eight players were within four shots of the lead, a group that includes Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson.
Wiesberger closed with three straight birdies — the three putts were a combined 3 feet, 6 inches — for a 65. Playing in only his sixth major championship, the 28-year-old Austrian now gets to play in the final group at a major with the No. 1 player in the world.
“From now on, it’s just a bonus, really,” Wiesberger said.
Fowler, a runner-up in the last two majors and the first player since Tiger Woods to finish among the top five in all three of them, gets one last crack. He played bogey-free for a 67 and was two shots behind.
Fowler will be playing in the penultimate group with Mickelson, the five-time major champion who turned his game around with strong finish. Right when he looked to be fading from contention, Lefty turned it on with a long birdie putt on the 14th hole, two more birdies, and then he narrowly missed an eagle putt on the final hole. He had a 67 and was three shots behind.
“That birdie putt on 14 was really the one that got me going, because I needed to finish strong to get back in it,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson was at 10-under 203 with Jason Day, who played in the final group Saturday and had to settle for a 69.
The PGA Championship does not bill itself as the toughest test in golf. It assembles the best field of the majors and lets them slug it out over four days. Add a super soft course from morning showers, and cheers rained down from every corner.
The average score was 69.6, though it felt easier to former Masters champion Adam Scott, one of nine players with a 66 or better.
“Doesn’t get any easier,” said Scott, who was six behind. “Seems like 4 or 5 under is about even par today.”
For all the birdies, two pars early in the round were important. Day hooked his tee shot so badly on the second hole that it cleared the stream and landed in a bog. It eventually was found in knee-high vegetation. Day had to remove his shoes, roll up his pants and wade across the stream to get there. He blasted across the fairway into the rough, hit wedge onto the green to 8 feet and made it.
The tee was moved forward on the par-4 fourth hole, making it play 292 holes. Seven players made eagle. McIlroy was not one of them. He hooked his tee shot into the woods and had to take a penalty drop to get a clear look at the green. McIlroy made a 12-footer for par to stay in the lead, and he made birdie on the next hole.
Back and forth it went all day. Fowler, Day, Wiesberger and even Ryan Palmer (69) and Jim Furyk took turns joining McIlroy atop the leaderboard. Through it all, Boy Wonder never fell back.
“It wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be out there today,” McIlroy said. “They tucked a few pins away, and obviously playing with the lead, you maybe can’t play with the freedom as if you’re chasing. But really happy with how I finished. To shoot another 67 without really having some of my best stuff for the round was really pleasing.”
And that’s what makes it hard on everyone else chasing him Sunday.
McIlroy is coming off a wire-to-wire win at the British Open and rallied to win a World Golf Championship in his next start. He goes after a third straight victory from a familiar position — in the lead.
Unlike his other three majors, he has hardly any margin for error and a lot more players chasing him.