LOUISVILLE — Maybe this is going to be harder than we thought.
Rory McIlroy battled a left miss — the same shot that torpedoed his chances at the 2011 Masters — but took just 24 putts and steadied himself on the back nine for a third-round 67. That was enough to keep his one-stroke lead at the hot and humid 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla on Saturday.
“Yeah, it wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be out there today,” said McIlroy, who is bidding for his third win in his last three starts.
Bernd Wiesberger, a 28-year-old Austrian with two career victories on the European Tour, fired a 6-under 65 to get to 12 under par, one shot behind.
Rickie Fowler, seeking his first major title after top-five finishes at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open this season, shot 67 to move to 11 under, two off the lead. He’ll play in the second to last pairing Sunday with Phil Mickelson, the 44-year-old five-time major winner, who also had a 67 and was at 10 under, as was Australian Jason Day (69).
“Seems like 4- or 5-under is about even par today,” said Adam Scott, who shot 5-under 66 to get to 7 under for the tournament.
Scott wasn’t far off. The scoring average for the third round was 69.57 a record low for the PGA Championship.
With an up-and-down out of the bunker in front of the 18th green, McIlroy made his third birdie in the final four holes to maintain his lead. Nine players are within four shots of the lead going into Sunday, including a quartet led by Henrik Stenson (67) at 9 under, four shots back.
“It’s all about positioning, being there,” said Stenson, who also will be seeking his first major Sunday. “You never know what can happen.”
It became apparent early that Day and McIlroy, in the final pairing, would not run away with the lead. Day hooked his tee shot all the way across a creek at the 500-yard second hole, and after a search aided by CBS’s David Feherty, he finally found his ball. Miraculously, Day, with his pants still rolled up after wading across the knee-high water, salvaged par.
“I was too lazy to actually get my shoes thrown over,” Day said. “I either [had to] hit it in my bare feet or put my shoes on and have to take my shoes off again [to cross the creek]. I was like, ‘We’re going to be behind, way behind, so I may as well just hit it with no shoes on.’ It was a great 4 there, a lucky 4.”
McIlroy badly hooked his attempt to drive the green at the 292-yard, par-4 fourth hole. He, too, scrambled to salvage par. This was not the same McIlroy who had won each of his last two starts, who has twice won majors by eight shots. Still, the World No. 1 never panicked. He deftly got up and down to save pars on every hole but the eighth and the 12th.
“Obviously I finished well but the middle of the round was pretty scrappy,” said McIlroy, who hit 10 of 14 fairways and just 12 greens in regulation. “But saying that, there were only two bogeys. I scrambled well.”
Valhalla was soft, and with the tees moved up at the fourth hole and generous back-nine pin positions, birdies were there for the taking. Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen shot 67 to get to 9 under, part of a foursome that also included Mikko Ilonen (69) and Ryan Palmer (69). Hunter Mahan shot 65 to get to 7 under. Sergio Garcia shot 66 to get to 5 under. Kenny Perry, the 53-year-old Kentuckian who was given an honorary exemption into this PGA, made eagle at the fourth and shot 69. He is 3 under.
“The way the golf course is,” Oosthuizen said, “you can attack it quite a bit.” He forgot to add the caveat: if you’re playing well.
Day and McIlroy were each without their best stuff, and a front nine that could’ve been filled with birdies and eagles began with a succession of off-target shots and desperate attempts to save par. That allowed the rest of the field to briefly catch up. Fowler made a curling, right-to-left 15-footer at the 10th hole to go to 10 under, tied with McIlroy for the lead.
Wiesberger tapped in his two-foot birdie putt at the 16th hole to create a five-way tie at the top at 10 under. One hole later, Wiesberger made his second tap-in birdie in a row to get to 11 under, grabbing sole possession of the lead. McIlroy responded seconds later, rolling in his birdie putt at the par-4 15th hole to also get to 11 under, joining the unknown Austrian at the top.
McIlroy also stuck his approach shot close at 16 and tapped in for birdie. That put him back in the lead by himself at 12 under par. He soon had company, though, as Wiesberger left himself with yet another tap-in birdie at 18 to join him at 12 under before McIlroy coaxed in a eight-foot birdie at 18 to regain the lead alone. The two will be grouped in Sunday’s final pairing.
“I’ll take a win any way it comes,” said McIlroy, whose victory at last month’s British Open at Hoylake also looked like a foregone conclusion before becoming closer than expected. “And if that means I have to scrap it out down the stretch, so be it. Any win would be very satisfying.”