Monday 18 November 2019

McIlroy in contention as Tiger's troubles return

Dermot Gilleece at Kiawah Island

An adventurous outward journey swept Rory McIlroy to the top of the leaderboard in the third round of the PGA Championship over the Ocean Course yesterday. Then, after he had bogeyed the ninth under dark, menacing skies, play was first suspended and then abandoned.

With good weather forecast for today, the plan is to complete the third round this morning before playing the final round in three balls off two tees. McIlroy will resume as joint leader with Vijay Singh, who had completed the eighth, on six under.

Further drama of the negative variety saw Tiger Woods suddenly slip out of contention last night. The putting revival of the opening two rounds which held promise of a long-awaited return to dominance at this level, failed to compensate for some decidedly wild approach play, and bogeys on the fourth, fifth and seventh pushed him down to a share of 11th place. There, he was joined by Pádraig Harrington who, with impeccable timing, finished a round of 69 before play was suspended.

The groundwork was laid in a sparkling, four-birdie outward journey of 32 but he then endured costly punishment when a wayward drive led to a double-bogey on the 10th. A holed bunker-shot, however, delivered a timely birdie on the short 17th and he went on to single-putt the 18th for a closing par.

"That's the score I sort of deserved, given the way I played the 10th," he said afterwards. Did he like his position having beaten the weather? "I suppose," he replied. "But it could work against me."

McIlroy's start could hardly have been more dramatic. After birdies on the first and second, his drive landed in a hole in an old tree on the third and, unsighted from the ground, it was discovered only by an aerial television camera.

The real bonus here was that after taking a penalty drop, he proceeded to pitch and putt for a par. Wind-speeds down significantly on Friday's gusts of 38mph and a course 220 yards shorter than its full length, seemed to fit the scoring mood. Yet a spectacular layout inspired by the genuine linksland of Portmarnock and Carne, remained a suitably searching test.

In such circumstances, Irish players could be expected to do well and Darren Clarke was positively beaming after a solidly-crafted 72 which ranked among his best rounds since capturing the Open 13 months ago. Particularly pleasing was his performance with the blade which delivered a return of 27, 27 and 28 putts over the last three days.

"I'm really excited," he said afterwards, as his sons Tyrone and Conor stood nearby. "I hit some lovely little cuts, draws and fades and could easily have been a few shots better. Hopefully this is the start of something good."

It seemed that all five Irish challengers had made the cut after debutant, Michael Hoey, returned a second-round 70 -- one of only five sub-par rounds on the day -- to improve by 90 positions on a total of 148, two strokes inside the qualifying figure. It later emerged, however, that he had incurred a two-stroke penalty which was not added to his card, so leading to disqualification.

Renowned as the great illusionist, architect Pete Dye presented competitors with a mental challenge like no other in tournament golf. Though aware of generous space in the landing areas, their eyes were telling them differently. This becomes especially daunting in high winds where they're forced to aim for trouble, trusting that the ball will be swept towards a safe landing.

Professionals don't like hitting for trouble, for fear the ball might just happen to go straight. And being able to spring back from Friday's 75 to regain a dominant position on the leaderboard, represented a significant breakthrough for McIlroy who, in the recent past, has been decidedly uncomfortable in these conditions.

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