RORY McILROY twice this week needed to show the heart of a true champion and on both occasions rose to the challenge.
Five days after grinding out an 'ugly' win at the Deutsche Bank in Boston, McIlroy had to scrap and scramble down the back nine at Crooked Stick yesterday to move within a stroke of Vijay Singh's lead at the BMW Championship.
Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell excelled on a great day to be Irish in Indiana, forcing their way into a share of ninth place on nine-under and breathing life into their prospects of making the 30-man field at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
McIlroy's second-round 68 kept him at level-pegging on 12-under with his new best friend and rival Tiger Woods on a day that probably would have stretched his patience beyond breaking-point a few months back.
Woods actually outscored McIlroy by one stroke yesterday, picking up five birdies on the back nine, three of them in the final four holes, as McIlroy struggled to control his ball.
How different it had looked a couple of hours earlier as the young Ulsterman followed up on a delightful eagle three at nine by landing an 11-foot putt for birdie four at 11 to take a share of the tournament lead.
Though fatigue appeared to take its toll as McIlroy started missing fairways and greens, he showed impressive resilience with his short game and putting to limit the damage to just two bogeys, throwing in two birdies on the final four holes for good measure.
The rousing battle between Woods and McIlroy over two days on a golf course softened by heavy rain and made even more vulnerable to attack by preferred lies came to a fitting climax at 18.
McIlroy, who'd sunk a superb 20-footer for a fighting par at 17, threw down the gauntlet by hitting his 136-yard approach from the fairway to eight feet at the last.
Woods picked it up in style. Standing in the fairway two yards closer to the green, he put his ball to within five feet of the hole. The crowds roared for more as both made birdie and they're likely to get their wish from these two over the weekend.
"I didn't play as well as I did yesterday but was able to get it around. It seemed like every time I missed the green, I missed it in the wrong spot and left myself difficult chips," said McIlroy.
"But I took advantage of the opportunities that I did give myself. I just think I'm putting so well recently that any time I do get a look on the green for birdie, I'm sort of making those, and that's making up for some of it."
McDowell and Harrington found their 'A' game. The Dubliner made a lovely eagle at nine, only it was the last hole of the magnificent round of 65 which suggests his four-year victory drought on the major tours may soon end.
The Portrush man appeared to get all the good karma he deserved for calling a two-shot penalty on himself after an 'invisible' transgression in a greenside bunker at his final hole on Thursday.
McDowell hit all 14 fairways and 17 greens in regulation during a 67 which suggested he not only can earn a spot at East Lake but is also getting back to peak form in perfect time for the Ryder Cup.
Simon Thornton, meanwhile, surged into contention at the KLM Open yesterday with a sizzling six-under-par 64 to equal his career low on tour.
A superb eagle three at Hilversum's final hole propelled Thornton (34) into a share of seventh on five-under. He's six behind runaway leader Graeme Storm after flawless rounds of 63 and 66 by the Englishman.
Yorkshire-born but now an Irish citizen and settled in Newcastle, Co Down, Thornton shot a 64 at last year's Challenge Tour Grand Final to earn his ticket to play on the main Tour for the second time in three years.
With seven cuts made in his 14 outings on Tour this year, Thornton has given himself the chance of the big cheque he needs this weekend to boost his chances of retaining that card.
Damien McGrane went into the weekend tied 20th on three-under after a round of 67. Dubliner Peter Lawrie was two-under after back-to-back 69s. Darren Clarke (68) and Gareth Maybin (71) squeezed through on level par.
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