By K.C. Johnson Chicago Tribune
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — First-round co-leader Ryan Palmer had just slogged his way through a gritty round of 1-under-par 70 to sit at 7 under through 36 holes of the PGA Championship. He had danced through Friday’s off-and-on raindrops to close with back-to-back birdies for the second straight day at Valhalla Golf Club.
And then, sitting in front of a backdrop listing the previous 95 PGA champions, Palmer shifted the focus from his round to reality.
“Rory is the guy to beat, to be honest,” Palmer said.
There’s a sobering truth to golf these days: It’s Rory McIlroy’s reign, and everybody else is just splashing around in it.
Yes, 36 holes still need to be played at Valhalla, although Tiger Woods, who missed the cut at 6 over, won’t be playing them. Thanks to a sore back that Woods said prevented him from taking the club back properly, he missed just his fourth cut at a major as a professional.
“I tried as hard as I could,” Woods said. “That’s about all I got.”
McIlroy’s seemingly casual jaunt to a 4-under 67 in conditions only a Northern Irishman could love has the world’s top-ranked player bearing down on a third straight victory and second straight major. At 9-under 133, he takes a one-stroke lead over Jason Day and Jim Furyk into Saturday’s third round.
“I’m clearly not the favorite,” Day said. “Rory’s hitting the ball longer and straighter than pretty much everyone in the field.”
McIlroy’s run, which includes a dominant performance in the British Open, has even him at a loss — a rarity these days.
“I’m staying in the present and have little trigger words I’m using that seem to be getting me through,” McIlroy said. “I can’t really explain it any better than that.”
Perhaps numbers can. McIlroy is now 41 under par in his past 10 competitive rounds, six of them played in the pressure cooker of major championships.
Is now the time to mention McIlroy missed a short eagle putt on the par-5 seventh — which would’ve been his second eagle of the day — and left a birdie putt on the par-3 eighth on the lip?
“When you hit the driver that straight and that long and the short game is incredible, it’s very difficult to beat him,” U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer said. “He doesn’t miss many shots. There’s nothing wrong with his game.”
Day fired the day’s low round, a 65 that included an eagle, as the weather calmed for the afternoon rounds. Torrential downpours had dumped an inch of rain and forced a 50-minute delay just 20 minutes after four groups had started.
“I wasn’t sure if we should have teed off to be honest,” Palmer said. “You could barely see the fairway.”
Palmer’s group could see the first green upon arrival. Well, they could see it was mostly underwater.
“We were questioning why we had to hit a second shot into a green that’s already half in standing water,” Palmer said. “They said, ‘That’s just golf.’ We’re like, ‘Tell the guy indoors that’s making the decision to come check it out because it’s wet.’ “
The conditions weren’t stopping McIlroy, who said his experience blowing the 2011 Masters as a 21-year-old helped teach him how to be a front-runner.
“I went into protection mode once in my career,” said McIlroy, who turned a four-stroke 54-hole lead into a tie for 15th with a final-round 80. “That didn’t work out very well. So I said to myself, ‘I’ll never do that again.’”