LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Not far from Churchill Downs, along Shelbyville Road east of downtown, there’s a horse race otherwise known as the PGA Championship. Firing a third-round 67 that included six birdies and two bogeys, favorite Rory McIlroy is ahead by a nose. But there are several strong contenders on McIlroy’s heels.
“I’ll take a win any way it comes,” Rory said. “If that means having to scrap it out with a couple coming down the stretch or if I can give myself some sort of lead going down the back nine or whatever it is.”
Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, a two-time winner on the European Tour, is one shot off McIlroy’s 13-under total after an impressive 65. Rickie Fowler had a 67 and is two shots off the pace. Phil Mickelson (67) and Jason Day (69) are within striking distance at 10 under par.
“I didn’t expect any of this really coming into this week,” Wiesberger said, adding about the challenge that lay ahead on Sunday, “I know I have it in me. I can perform on the big stage.”
After soaking rains in the morning at Valhalla Golf Club, the skies mostly cleared in the afternoon. Gentle breezes made the heavy humidity slightly more bearable for spectators.
I caught up with the leaders on the final nine, watching McIlroy and Day tee off on the par-3 14th hole. McIlroy was bunkered, but got up and down to save par. Day also parred, and the pair walked to the par-5 15th tied at 10 under.
Rory must have reached down for another gear. He birdied 15 and the long par-4 16th to edge back ahead of the pack. At 17, where I stood on a knoll near the green, Wiesberger nearly holed his approach shot. He tapped in for a birdie and was tied for the lead. Except for Ryan Palmer who made a bogey, Mickelson, Fowler, Mikko Ilonen and Jim Furyk all recorded pars on the 17th. Not along after, so did the final pairing of McIlroy and Day.
Mickelson, who birdied the par-5 finishing hole, is bullish about his chances.
“It’s so fun for me to be back in the thick of it, have a chance, being in contention heading into Sunday,” Mickelson said.
The final two players blasted their drives on the 18th, with McIlroy slightly ahead of the Aussie Day. Both men deposited their second shots into the bunker fronting the green. McIlroy got up and in for his birdie, while Day could do no better than par.
“I’m expecting to be more comfortable tomorrow than I have in the past two final rounds,” Fowler said about his prospects to win his first major.
But he and the rest of the chasing pack will have to somehow run down that lead thoroughbred, McIlroy.