LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As Rory McIlroy watched the ball drop into the cup on his final stroke of the day, he pumped his right fist and managed a slight grin.
He had fended off every challenger Saturday.
He was right where he wanted to be going to Sunday.
Leading the PGA Championship.
McIlroy finished off a 4-under 67 with an 8-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole, getting up-and-down from a bunker to maintain a one-shot advantage after the third round.
“It’s not the biggest lead I’ve ever had, but I’m still in control of this golf tournament,” said McIlroy, who birdied three of the last four holes. “It’s a great position to be in.”
With greens softened by overnight rain, this was a day for going low at Valhalla. Plenty of players did, most notably Bernd Wiesberger. The 28-year-old Austrian provided the biggest surprise of the round, shooting a 65 that put him in the final group of a major for the first time.
Shoot, this is only the second time he’s ever made a cut at a major.
“This is a dream come true,” said Wiesberger, a regular on the European Tour. “I’m very proud of myself, the way I played today. This is a completely new situation for me.”
Beyond Wiesberger, there were plenty of players ready to take aim at McIlroy on what figures to be a wild final day on the rolling hills outside of Louisville.
Rickie Fowler was right in the mix again at another major, shooting a 67 that left him two shots behind McIlroy’s 13-under 200. Fowler has been the runner-up at the last two majors, and finished fifth at the Masters. Maybe this is the week he finally breaks through.
Then there’s Phil Mickelson, who already has five major titles. Lefty hasn’t won since the 2013 British Open – his longest drought since 2003 – but he’s clearly back on his game. He birdied four of the last five holes for a 67 and was three shots off the pace.
“I needed to finish strong to get back in it,” Mickelson said.
Australia’s Jason Day was also three strokes behind, having lost some ground despite a 69 that included a barefooted shot. After hitting his drive left of a creek at No. 2, he had to take off his socks and shoes and roll up his pants to get across the water. He wound up saving par.
Still, that was a rather pedestrian score in this round, with 37 players getting into the 60s. Hunter Mahan joined Weisberger with a 65, matching the best round of the week, and seven guys shot 66.
At one point, there was a five-way tie for the lead. When it was done, McIlroy was still on top but a dozen players were separated by only five shots, meaning the leader will have to work a little harder for this major than he did for the three first three championships.
McIlroy had runaway victories at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, and took a six-shot lead to the final round of the British Open last month, hanging on for a two-stroke win that was never really in doubt.
He doesn’t mind a tougher challenge.
“Yeah, it’s stressful at times, but you’ve got to enjoy it,” McIlroy said. “This is the best position to be in at a golf tournament.”
Weyburn, Sask. native Graham DeLaet is tied for 10th after carding 68 in the 3rd round. He’s sitting 8-under, five shots back of McIlroy.