TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The brilliant Northern Irishman who set the record for the widest margin of victory in the PGA Championship a decade ago will need to make his biggest comeback on Sunday if he is to win a third Wanamaker Trophy.
First-round leader Rory McIlroy, whose stellar start turned into a stunning slide down the leaderboard on Saturday, netted four birdies with three bogeys, a double and a triple on his wild run around Southern Hills. By the time he missed a 15-footer for par on the 18th, leaving him with a 4 of 74, McIlroy found himself nine shots behind leader Mito Pereira.
Impossible? Almost, but not quite.
Jack Burke Jr. rallied eight behind Ken Venturi in the final round of the 1956 Masters to win. Paul Lawrie overcame a 10-stroke deficit to Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open, eventually winning that in the playoffs.
“I think you gotta go out and get it,” said second-round point guard Will Zatoris, who fired 73 shots Saturday to finish three shots behind Matt Fitzpatrick at 6 under. “Everyone has to go out and earn it.”
The long and vexing Southern Hills is certainly capable of producing insane scores either way.
There was Tiger Woods, who squeaked into the weekend and shot 79 on Saturday before retiring, and Zalatoris, who bogeyed four of his front nine before a strong finish kept him within reach. Pereira’s 9-cent goal.
On the other hand, Bubba Watson, whose 63 on Friday tied the PGA record, and Webb Simpson, who came out early on Saturday and shot 65 to move from reduced numbers to a tie for 10th before Sunday.
“It’s hard to hunt here because the golf course is so difficult. It’s really hard to get out and get going fast,” Simpson said. “I mean, it’s a tough start. I feel like if you’re even through four holes, that’s really good. I’ll take that.”
McIlroy made one of those starts on Thursday, when he tamed the wind and heat to open with 65. The excellent turn came 10 years after winning his first PGA at Kiawah Island with an eight-stroke game – the four-time Major winner added his second two years later to Valhalla – and gave him the confidence that he could add another Major to his ledger.
He was still in contention after a second-round 71, but things started to go downhill on the sixth hole on Saturday.
McIlroy hit a tee shot on the long par 3, playing against the wind for the first time all week, and watched it splash into the water adjacent to the green. After a fall, he hit his approach about 30 feet out and missed the putt for bogey.
He made two more bogeys, the second with a three-putt on the eighth, before a birdie appeared to put him back on track.
Then came the par-3 11th, where McIlroy simply made a mess. His approach ended left of the green, his pitch shot again failed, another chip finally brought him to the putting surface and a three-putt left him with a triple bogey.
His tournament should have ended right there, but the explosion came at a time in Southern Hills where no one seemed to want to win: Zalatoris was struggling on the front line amid the cold, shifting winds; Pereira made four bogeys during a five-hole stretch; Justin Thomas retreated after opening with 67 in a row; and Watson started slugging on the back nine, closing with three bogeys on his final four holes.
While McIlroy was not immune to problems caused by Perry Maxwell’s masterpiece, he showed courage by fighting back. He birdied three times on a four-hole run down the backside before his deflated bogey at last.
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