Rory McIlroy is 18 holes away from history. The world's top-ranked golfer heads into Sunday's fourth round of the 2014 PGA Championship with a one-shot lead over Bernd Wiesberger and a two-shot advantage over Rickie Fowler, who leads the Golfers You've Actually Heard Of Division.
Holding to his lead would give McIlroy three victories in as many tournaments, two of which have been major championships. This would be his second PGA Championship in the last three years and the first time he's ever won multiple majors in the same season. Plus, there's the whole three-wins-in-a-row thing for a dude who quietly has just eight at the PGA level.
Based on the names lurking right behind him, though, McIlroy's latest triumph would rank among his most impressive yet.
Besides Fowler, who has finished second at the two prior majors, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen are within shouting distance.
Mickelson's week has been as part of a season-long build back to competence. Even staying where he's at within the leaderboard hierarchy would give him his first top-10 finish of 2014. Oosthuizen's only win on the PGA Tour remains the 2010 Open Championship, while Stenson has eight top 10s but has never gotten over the hump.
It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out. With that in mind, let's take a quick look around the field and preview Sunday's final round before it gets fully underway.
Can Anyone Stop Rory?
We may actually be looking at the ascent most thought we were witnessing two years ago. In 2012, McIlroy's PGA Championship win sent him off on a brilliant run as he took the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship en route to a FedEx Cup win. The BMW would be McIlroy's last PGA win until last month.
Given the way he's been playing of late, it's difficult to envision his reign of terror stopping anytime soon. McIlroy has entered himself into that stratum of athletes where you can believe just about anything.
LeBron James finished a 360 windmill alley-oop? Sounds about right. Mike Trout hit for the cycle and slid into your girl's DMs at the same time? Fair enough.
Rory McIlroy makes the world's toughest sport look like a kid's game? Yup.
The Northern Irishman has battled his way to the top despite quite a few mistakes. There was the double-bogey combo meal in the first round. He had a skittish par on the 10th and two bogeys in the second. You could point to any number of mishits and bouts of inconsistency in the third, which saw him birdie three of his last four holes to retake command.
"I'm loving it," McIlroy told reporters of his hot streak, per the Los Angeles Times. "We don't practice all these hours and grind on the range and put so much work into it to be teeing off in the middle of the pack Sunday. This is where you want to be."
If there's one area where McIlroy would like to improve from Saturday, it's probably with his mid-irons. He still hit a solid two-thirds of his greens in regulation but also had some bad approaches and gave up a couple of fairway shots that would normally result in a red score. He had a ton of trouble on par threes, bogeying No. 8 and sending his tee shot into the bunker on No. 14.
Still, we're nitpicking. McIlroy has been crushing the ball with accuracy off the tee, putting himself in position for birdie consistently. In addition, he has been scorched-earth hot with his putter at times. This is his tournament to lose.
Should Wiesberger do the unthinkable on Sunday, he'll be right up there on the list of random golfers who came out of nowhere and stole a major. Think...Todd Hamilton at the 2004 Open Championship. Or...Lucas Glover at the 2009 U.S. Open. We are entering a whole new kind of weird, which should be entertaining to most objective observers.
"Well, I've not been in contention in a major championship, so I don't know how it's going to turn out," Wiesberger told reporters, per ESPN.com. "I'm friends with Rory and I'm sure it's going to be a nice situation out there again...Yeah, just enjoy myself. From now on, it's just a bonus, really."
Wiesberger made his move to challenge McIlroy on Saturday, carding birdies on his last three holes to finish with a six-under 65. While not the longest off the tee, he has made up for it with unrelenting accuracy. He hit nearly 81 percent of his fairways and approached three-quarters of his greens in regulation in the third round.
The 28-year-old Austrian came into this week having made four prior appearances in major championships. He was cut three times and finished tied for 64th in the other (2013 Open Championship). His most notable wins came in 2012 on the European Tour. The last time he finished inside the top 10 at a PGA-sponsored event was never.
In the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime week, I fear we could be on the precipice of disappointment. Golf is the ultimate regression game. Great players continually rise to the top. A few exceptions aside, most flashes in the pan flame out before it's time to hand over the trophy. History says playing alongside McIlroy means an implosion could be on the brink at any time for either player.
It'll be a whole pile of fun if Wiesberger can stay in contention. Nevertheless, betting on him doing so seems ill-advised.
Phil and Everybody Else
Fans of both casual and hardcore nature have been conditioned to perk up whenever Mickelson is within striking distance of a lead. His last major, last season's Open Championship, came after a fierce fourth-round 66 allowed him to make up a five-stroke deficit to Lee Westwood.
This time around, Lefty needs only three strokes. After an opening-round 69 that saw him leave shots on the table, Mickelson has gone four under each of the last two days to sit at 10 under par overall. He kept himself alive Saturday by finishing with four birdies in his last five holes.
“If I play the way I feel I can and shoot the number I believe I can, I’m in a position to win the golf tournament, and that’s what feels good,” Mickelson told reporters, per The Boston Globe. “You’ve got to go out and make birdies. You just have to get a hot hand.”
Although his starry name lends itself credence heading into the final 18 holes, Mickelson has not played like a winner for most of the week. It's been oddly workmanlike, with Mickelson pulling his rounds up by the bootstraps and holding on to finish them off in style. He has hung right around tour average or a little bit below by most accuracy and distance measures this week.
The same cannot be said for Oosthuizen or Jason Day, who have both been betrayed by their putter. Day's third round saw him actually give strokes back, per the PGA's strokes gained metric, which is difficult to do when you're competing in a tournament of this magnitude. Oosthuizen was slightly better, but he didn't start finding short-stick consistency until the last five or so holes.
Having finished second on three different occasions, Day already knows what it's like to come close without getting over. Oosthuizen only has three top-10 finishes in major championships but one of them resulted in a win. Stenson, who finished fourth at this year's U.S. Open, wishes he could say the same.
And then there's Fowler, who has somehow become the forgotten contender in the bunch. The 25-year-old California native is the world's best golfer who seems fundamentally unable to finish off tournaments. He ranks 18th in the world despite having one PGA Tour victory for his career—and that came two years ago.
Fowler's rise has been thanks to a weird level of consistency in majors. He has placed in the top five in all three big tournaments in 2014, including back-to-back second-place finishes.
The kid known for the flamboyant wardrobe is finally letting his play do the talking. We'll see if it actually comes with a win this time.
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