Tuesday 27 September 2016

Rory digs deep in bid to defend his number one spot

Dermot Gillece

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Australian Matt Jones plays a bunker shot on the third hole last night. Photo: Jamie Squire
Australian Matt Jones plays a bunker shot on the third hole last night. Photo: Jamie Squire

Bright sunshine returned to Whistling Straits yesterday, bringing with it a heartwarming sparkle to the endeavours of title-holder, Rory McIlroy, who carded a third round 68 to be six under par for the 97th PGA Championship.

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Crucially, it could be enough to protect his world number one status by the end of battle this evening.

A seriously congested, truly international leaderboard, holds promise of a tense finish and a possible repeat of the play-off which brought the title to Martin Kaymer in 2010. Indeed the German is back in contention, despite remarkably poor form in the event since then.

A fierce storm of high winds, rain and lightning swept the area on Friday afternoon, causing a suspension of play at 5.28pm, with 57 players still to complete the second round. A 7am start yesterday, however, brought everything back on schedule, though McIlroy was to be the lone Irish survivor from five challengers.

This was especially disappointing at a venue accorded a distinctly Irish dimension by the owner, Herb Kohler.

Shane Lowry fought the good fight in a resurgent second round of 69, only to be undone, ultimately, by a missed five-footer on the eighth, his second-half hole, while Padraig Harrington also missed by one.

Looking towards the charming, cut-stone clubhouse, I have felt an inner-glow this week - as I did on two previous visits here - at the sight of three flag poles dominating the view. The one on the left carries the American stars and stripes and on the right is the state flag of Wisconsin. And dominant in the centre is the Irish tricolour.

"It will remain there as long as I'm around, representing the character and spirit of your country," remarked Kohler. He went on to say that the last four horses he bought were from different parts of Ireland. Farm horses, they will become part of a breeding programme in the US to deliver a team of four for Kohler's favoured pastime of "driving a carriage".

For some precious minutes in an eventful afternoon, McIlroy was actually level on the leaderboard with Jordan Spieth on six under par for the championship. This came courtesy of a six-footer for birdie on the fourth, followed by a holed 65-putt putt for an eagle on the long fifth.

But the rust of earlier rounds gradually stifled a spirited surge, and visits to a few of the ubiquitous bunkers led to bogeys at the sixth and eighth. Though there was similar inconsistency to his efforts on a homeward journey, birdies at the 10th, 13th, 16th and 18th were only partially countered by two bogeys in-between.

"After the eagle on five, the bogey at the next was a bit of a momentum stopper," he said. "But I thought I bounced back well on the back nine.

"My feeling overall is that I'm improving every day and if I can get off to a fast start tomorrow, there would be a low one out there. It's all about setting a realistic goal. In the back of your mind, you still think you have a chance because that's what your competitive nature tells you."

All the while, one could imagine an anxiety to do his own bit towards protecting the coveted world number one status which is unquestionably under serious threat from Spieth.

The American could, in fact, take over the crown today, depending on these four possibilities: Spieth wins and McIlroy is not second alone; Spieth is second alone and McIlroy is not in the top six; Spieth is tied second with one other player and McIlroy is not in the top 13; Spieth is tied second with two others and McIlroy is not in the top 33. If Spieth finishes lower than third alone, McIlroy will remain top of the rankings.

By any standards, Spieth has shown himself to be a wonderful putter. But we had further confirmation that his remarkable talents extend way beyond hitting golf shots. A perfect illustration came from his explanation about the bunker recovery he had holed on the 18th on Friday, while McIlroy was labouring to a double-bogey six.

"Prior to the tournament," said Spieth, "I talked to the local caddies who told me that there's always much more sand in that bunker - and I think there's one other - than the remainder of the bunkers on the course. So, hitting a hybrid to the green, I knew a miss right wasn't a bad place to be."

While there is undoubtedly an element of luck in such happenings, it is interesting that Spieth has holed no fewer than 16 chips in tournament play so far this year. Which makes it hard to avoid the impression of a player tilting the balance of probability in his own favour.

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