PGA Championship 2014: Biggest Takeaways from Day 3 at Valhalla
Day 3 at the PGA Championship wasn’t full of surprises like Adam Scott nailing a sprinkler head or Ian Poulter chipping off a green (such were the foibles on Day 2). What we got was an absolute war atop the leaderboard on the back nine.
Bernd Wiesberger (who?) knocked an approach to three inches to take the lead at 11 under par. Then Rory McIlroy, two holes behind, drained a 20-footer to go to 11-under. The Valhalla gallery somehow out-howled the Sunday from 14 years ago when Bob May and Tiger Woods dueled.
The course begged for low numbers, and that’s what happened. These players took aim at these pins in a hunt for the reddest August this side of October. There are 11 golfers within five shots of McIlroy.
Everyone found trouble at some point or another. Whether it was Jason Day rolling up his knickers, taking off his shoes and wading across a creek on Hole 2, or Rory McIlroy blasting his drive on Hole 4 in the water and then getting up and down for an all-world par.
Scrambling was the word, and that may be the biggest takeaway from the penultimate day of the 96th PGA Championship. Read on to see a few more takeaways from Day 3 at Valhalla.
Don't Discount the Elder Statesmen
For all the talk of McIlroy, Fowler and Day (deservedly so), three men in their mid-20s, the golfers cut from a more middle-aged fabric are just as likely to hold up the Wanamaker Trophy at sundown on Sunday.
Phil Mickelson—and his five majors—as well Steve Stricker (-8) and Henrik Stenson (-9) are right in the thick of this tournament.
Mickelson has that goofy Woody-from-Toy-Story smile that signifies loose, playful (reckless?) play that could put him in a final pairing. He didn't quite make the final pairing, but he's in one of the later groups that will put a charge through the gallery.
Mickelson recorded three straight birdies on the back nine to put him in a perfect striking position. Then he added another for good measure on 18 to go to 10-under and two back of the leaders.
Mickelson said during the CBS broadcast, "Things started to kind of click. I started to get the ball in play more. I'm more patient. I don't have to go out and force things and show up on the first tee and wonder if my game's going to be there."
The agility atop this leaderboard makes for a salivating Sunday of championship golf. These guys are going to have to go out and win the tournament. Conservative play won’t cut it Sunday.
Adam Scott Is a Hungry (Former) No. 1
Adam Scott lost his top spot atop the world rankings and has made no bones about wanting that title back, and he played like it on Saturday.
He fired off a round devoid of bogeys and got himself to seven-under within six strokes of the lead. Nobody was watching McIlroy’s third round closer than Scott.
“It's still a major,” Scott said on ABC.net. “You never know what can happen. Just because Rory's playing great today, doesn't mean he's playing great...Sunday, and same with everyone else. There's a lot of pressure on guys leading a major.”
The leaderboard is chock full of major winners from Scott and Furyk to Mickelson and McIlroy. Scott’s Saturday play showed his capability to turn the volume up to 11 when the pressure is hottest.
A similar round—and a slip-up from McIlroy (dreaming?) and the gaggle of golfers at 10 under par—could put Scott on the edge of his second major. He’ll be watching the screens from the clubhouse for sure.
A Weekend Without Tiger Woods Is Still News
Tiger Woods’ back-to-back 74s was a blessing in disguise. He wouldn’t admit that, but it’s the truth.
After he tweaked his back on the front nine Friday, Woods chose to power through the round instead of withdraw.
Withdrawing was the prudent course of action, but it looked like he played to prove something to himself (or maybe Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson). Butch Harmon, Woods’ former swing coach, practically admonished Woods for not boarding Air Tiger back to Florida after the seventh hole Friday.
“He looked like his back was bothering him all on the front nine," Harmon said to Sky Sports. "In all honesty, I was really upset with him for playing the back nine, for want of a better word."
ESPN.com’s Ian O’Connor had a similar sentiment:
He needs to quit playing through it now. He needs to forget about the Ryder Cup, give his back the rest of the year off, and start preparing to stop all this Rory McIlroy madness at Augusta National, the one place the kid hasn't conquered.
For the first time, not seeing Woods on the weekend at a major feels right because he’s felt so wrong since his abbreviated rehab ended prior to The Open Championship. He bit off far more than he could chew.
At this point, most people would agree with O’Connor: Hang up the shoes, build up the body in secret and come out clubs blazing in 2015.
The Best Are Scrambling Best
For all the praise rained on McIlroy the last few weeks and into the weekend, one may think he’s incapable of a poor shot. (Saturday disproved that. It wasn’t his sharpest effort.)
The way Jason Day played Thursday and Friday (and according to the CBS broadcast, he was the No. 1 driver, ball striker and scrambler), he too seemed incapable of hooking a drive.
Day went wading across a creek on the second hole, laid up his second shot and then got up and down for an incredible par.
On the drivable par-four fourth, McIlroy blasted his 3-wood to Middle-earth. He took his drop and then got up and down from there for par. He did it again on the ninth, getting up and down from mop-thick rough.
The best are making lemonade from errant, 300-yard lemons. This is a different kind of silver linings playbook altogether.
This is what makes players like McIlroy and Day so dangerous. It was what made Tiger Woods so dangerous in his prime. They all hit terrible shots, yet their brilliance in the face of a bobble allows them the best chance at the Wanamaker.
Pressure? What Pressure?
Austria's Bernd Wiesberger made a major move up the leaderboard Saturday. He nearly eagled the 17th when his approach rolled to within three inches. He tapped in for birdie and held sole position of the lead for about 22 seconds.
Justin Ray, researcher for Golf Channel, tweeted, "Before this week, Bernd Wiesberger had never broken par in any round in a major."
What pressure? He would finish at 12 under par and will play with McIlroy on Sunday. Wiesberger told CBS during the broadcast:
It was a dream come true, really. I played beautifully today. I didn't miss a lot of shots. It's a completely new situation for me. It's only my second cut in a major out of six attempts. I've driven the ball really nicely this week and if I can do that it will settle down the nerves out there and just have some fun tomorrow.
After Wiesberger stuck his approach on 17, McIlroy then sank his birdie putt on 15 to match Wiesberger at 11 under par. Mickelson, Fowler, Furyk and even Day were putting like they were on the practice tees with a coach and caddy watching them and nobody else.
All these golfers are jockeying for position for Sunday. There was no letup. You could feel the urgency every time they stepped up to the ball. They fed off the anxiety and were refueled by the roar of the crowd.
And this was Saturday. Sunday will be a beast unto itself.
Rickie Fowler Is So Money and He Knows It
Much like McIlroy entering the final round at the Bridgestone Invitational a week ago, Rickie Fowler came out Saturday and attacked Valhalla like a gladiator. Granted, what McIlroy did to Sergio Garcia in three holes at Firestone was like a cat playing with a three-legged mouse.
Fowler didn’t go and seize the lead Saturday, but he did carpe diem the heck out of Valhalla. Fowler said on the CBS broadcast after his round:
I hit it very well on the back nine. I had to be patient, couldn't press. I had to be happy with the pars. I didn't get a whole lot out of the round on the back nine, but I played a lot of good golf so I'm looking forward to tomorrow. It sounds cliche, but patience is key, shot by shot for me this year is going through the process.
McIlroy spoke about the one time he played it safe (the 2011 Masters) and shot 80 and lost (duh).
“I've went protection mode once in my career and it was the 2011 Masters," McIlroy told ESPN.com. "That didn't work out very well. So I said to myself: I'll never do that again.”
McIlroy won't hold back Sunday, and Fowler’s actions suggested he’ll always play aggressively to keep pressure on himself and others.
Some players shrink from the stage in the majors, and in 2014 Fowler puffed up like a peacock, displaying bright colors and a fearless approach to major golf.
Valhalla Was Very Kind on Saturday
The battle atop Saturday's leaderboard was bananas. We have Valhalla Golf Club to thank for that. The conditions were ripe for scoring.
Of the top 38 golfers, only one shot over par: Furyk at one-over on the day. Furyk failed to take advantage of the course Saturday. At one point he was one stroke back of the lead. He ended his day six back.
Jim Nantz, CBS's broadcaster, used the word "harbinger" at the end of Saturday's coverage—as in, "If Saturday's play was a harbinger for things to come on Sunday, you don't want to miss it."
That's the truth.
McIlroy rolled in his final putt on 18 to go to 13-under and take sole possession of the lead. And if Mickelson (-10), Louis Oosthuizen (-9) or McIlroy win this tournament, it will be the first time since 2000 that all the majors in one year were won by a previous major winner.
The way McIlroy and Mickelson are playing would suggest that experience is king, but Wiesberger's game seems tailor-made for the conditions at Valhalla. If he doesn't melt down, he's going to push McIlroy and make the Northern Irishman earn that fourth major.