McIlroy leads PGA by a stroke; it seems like more

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Tiger Woods (Andy Lyons/ Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rory McIlroy goes to the weekend of the PGA Championship with a one-stroke lead.

It seems bigger than that.

Such is the state of McIlroy’s game.

“When I’m playing like this, it’s obviously very enjoyable,” he said after a 4-under 67 on Friday. “I can’t wait to get back out on the course again (Saturday) and do the same thing all over again.”

Jason Day and Jim Furyk are right on his heels, but the Aussie acknowledged that it will be tough for anyone to beat McIlroy.

“I’m clearly not the favorite,” Day said. “This whole year he’s been playing great. He looks confident. He’s hitting the ball longer and straighter than pretty much everyone in the field. It’s going to be tough to beat him.”

Here are things to watch for in the third round of the PGA Championship:

OH CANADA: Graham DeLaet starts Saturday just 4-shots back of McIlroy despite injuring his neck prior to his round Friday. “I kinked my neck pretty bad, I wasn’t able to really move,” said DeLaet.  “If you’d asked me this morning, I thought I was going to miss the cut.  I didn’t think I was going to be able to get it around.  A bunch of Advil, some Tylenol. I made a few good putts today, just kind of bunted it around.  Some days when you don’t have any expectations, you never know what’s going to happen.”

RORY’S QUEST: Tiger Woods was the No. 1 player in the world when he won the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla for his third straight major. McIlroy isn’t that far along, though he does have a small slice of history at stake if he can win the Wanamaker Trophy. McIlroy is trying to become only the seventh player to win the last two majors of the year, and the first since Padraig Harrington in 2008. Woods did it twice. It would be McIlroy’s fourth major. The only other players to have won four majors before age 26 were Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Willie Anderson and Young Tom Morris.

YOUNG GUNS: Jason Day and Rickie Fowler are not yet among the best players to have never won a major. But they might be the best young players without one. And they keep giving themselves chances. Day won the Match Play Championship in February until a thumb injury derailed his year. The 26-year-old Aussie appears to be in form again after the low score of the second round, a 6-under 65 that put him in the final group. Day has been runner-up three times in a major, most recently at the U.S. Open last year. Fowler shot a 66 and was two shots behind McIlroy. He is no stranger to being in contention at the majors on the weekend. Fowler, 25, played in the final group at the last two majors and was runner-up in both. He is the first player since Woods in 2005 to finish in the top five at the first three majors of the year.

LEFTY’S SURGE: Phil Mickelson has been mired in his longest losing streak since 2003. But it looks as though he has found his game. Mickelson shot a blistering 62 in the final round at Firestone, and it has carried over to his best 36-hole start in a major since winning the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Mickelson opened with a 69 and eagled the final hole Friday for a 67. Lefty is looking for his first victory since capturing the 2013 British Open at Muirfield. Mickelson has several agendas this weekend, one of which includes locking up his spot on another Ryder Cup team. He already holds the record by qualifying nine times in a row, and he doesn’t want captain Tom Watson to have to use a wild-card pick this time.

PART-TIME STRICKER: Steve Stricker will be an assistant captain for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. But first, he has to take care of some business at the final major of the year. The 47-year-old Stricker, who became a part-time player last year to spend more time with his family, still has plenty of game. He shot 68 Friday and was four strokes off the lead heading to the weekend. He has been a top-10 finisher in the majors 11 times, most notably a runner-up finish to Vijay Singh at the 1998 PGA Championship. He would be one of the oldest major champions in golf history if he comes through at Valhalla.

TIGER’S FUTURE: Tiger Woods won’t be at Valhalla this weekend – he missed the cut at a major championship for only the fourth time in his professional career – but there are plenty of questions about his future. Woods shot back-to-back rounds of 74, leaving him a whopping five shots below the cut line. Woods said his ailing back flared up again, and he conceded that he needs to get stronger. It looks like he’ll have plenty of time to work on his game. Unless he plays next week at Greensboro, North Carolina – which he’s never done – his season is effectively over. Woods failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs, and there seems little chance he will be picked for the Ryder Cup by Watson. For Woods, the focus turns to 2015.