ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Francesco Molinari had a front-row seat for Phil Mickelson’s winning final round at the British Open three weeks ago, so if all the cards fall right and Rory McIlroy wins the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill on Sunday, well, Molinari is guessing he’ll get friend requests in the locker room.
“We’ll see,” Molinari said after playing alongside McIlroy (67, 3 under) in the third round Saturday. “If he wins tomorrow, I’ll be popular with the guys.”
It’s been a dud of a year for McIlroy in 2013. He’s lost the No. 1 ranking and fallen all the way to No. 3. He lost in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play, quit mid-round at the Honda Classic, was a non-factor at the season’s first three majors, and peaked with a T2 at the Valero Texas Open in early April.
But as McIlroy has already demonstrated more than once at age 24, things can change quickly in golf, especially for a player blessed with his vast reserves of firepower. In the best sign yet that he’s settling back into his game after turmoil born of club and management changes, and moving to South Florida, he made a transcontinental putt on 17 and chipped in on 18 for birdies on two of the hardest holes at Oak Hill and finds himself just six back of leader Jim Furyk (68, 9 under).
“Yeah, it’s getting there,” said McIlroy, who hit just seven of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens but got up and down seven times in eight chances. “It was good to feel that sort of rush again. I felt it a bit in San Antonio this year.”
Around lunchtime Friday, McIlroy was 4 over par and in danger of missing the cut. But he made four birdies coming home to get in at even par, and then took only 25 putts while making four birdies and one bogey Saturday. He is 7 under par for his last 26 holes -- trending, as the Twitter people say.
Could McIlroy win Sunday? Yes, he could. Mickelson was five back going into the final round of the British, and he won by three. It happens. McIlroy’s task will be to match up his only so-so tee-to-green game with his superlative putting.
“He was very patient today,” said Molinari, who shot a 70 Saturday and was at even par for the tournament. “When he missed a couple of shots, he scrambled very well. It looks like he’s enjoying himself more on the course and waiting for things to happen more than trying to force it. It’s good to see that things are starting to happen again for him. The birdies on 17 and 18 were very unlikely.”
Indeed, McIlroy figured he picked up around “three, three and a half shots” on the field by ending 3-3. He had 225 yards for his second shot on 17, and his birdie putt seemed only slightly shorter. He was in the trees off the tee on 18, but blistered a 4-iron, careful to keep it under the branches, and watched his ball roll just barely through the green before chipping in. The crowd roared. Rory roared.
Is the slump that ate McIlroy, the biggest buzz-kill of 2013, a thing of the past? In the moment, anyway, it was certainly forgotten if not gone.
How has he played his way into this PGA? In a word: putting. McIlroy has by his own admission not hit the ball wonderfully this week, but he took 28 putts in round one, 29 in round two, and an economical 25 in round three. His success on the greens has simply been an extension of his play at last week’s Bridgestone Invitational, where his tie for 27th place obscured some remarkable stats.
“I mean, I had 24 putts for 71 on Friday,” McIlroy said of his performance at Bridgestone. “I had 25 putts for 69 on Saturday. So my short game has been really, really good.”
Just six players will begin the final round ahead of McIlroy, who will play with Lee Westwood (68). McIlroy will most likely need to shoot a 66 at the worst. Will a 66 or even a 65 be out there Sunday? Perhaps it will be, considering Dustin Johnson shot 65 Saturday. Does McIlroy still have that kind of round in his bag?
“Every time I’m in that position,” he said of his mindset Saturday morning, “I just think back to Quail Hollow a few years ago and what I did on the weekend.”
McIlroy, of course, shot a final-round 62 to beat Mickelson by four at the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship. His first three rounds: 72-73-66. His first three rounds this week: 69-71-67. He has shorter hair now, but he’s still the same guy.
Shane Lowry signed for a 5-over 75 Saturday, so he wasn’t in such a terrific mood, but he has a unique window into McIlroy’s troubled 2013. It was Lowry who dispatched Rory 1 up in the first round of the Accenture back in late February, a bittersweet result given that they go back a ways to their days playing amateur golf in Northern Ireland. When Lowery failed to Monday-qualify for the Honda the next week, he showed up in McIlroy’s gallery at PGA National.
“People expect a lot from him,” Lowry said as he stood off to the side of the practice putting green by the Oak Hill clubhouse. “But you know, at the end of the day he’s only human. Obviously he’s not had a good year, but he’ll survive, and now he has a chance to win tomorrow. That’s the thing about golf and that’s the thing about journalists. He’s one good round from having a great year and getting everybody off his back. I hope he does it, to be honest.”
He’s not the only one.