TULSA, Okla. – The brilliant Northern Irishman who set the record for largest margin of victory in the PGA Championship a decade ago will need to mount his biggest comeback Sunday if he wants to win a third Wanamaker Trophy.
First-round leader Rory McIlroy, whose stellar start turned into a stunning slide down the leaderboard Saturday, offset four birdies with three bogeys, a double and a triple during his wild ride around Southern Hills. By the time he missed a 15-footer for par at the 18th, leaving him with a 4-over 74, McIlroy found himself nine shots back of leader Mito Pereira.
Impossible? Almost, but not quite.
Jack Burke Jr. rallied from eight down to Ken Venturi in the final round of the 1956 Masters to win. Paul Lawrie overcame a 10-shot deficit to Jean Van de Velde during the 1999 British Open, eventually winning that in a playoff.
“I think you’ve got to go out and get it," said second-round leader Will Zalatoris, who shot 73 on Saturday to finish three shots back with Matt Fitzpatrick at 6 under. "Everybody’s got to go out and earn it.”
The long, vexing Southern Hills is certainly capable of producing some crazy scores in both directions.
There was Tiger Woods, who squeaked into the weekend and shot 79 on Saturday before withdrawing, and Zalatoris, who made four bogeys on his first nine before a strong finish kept him within range of Pereira's 9-under target.
On the flip side was Bubba Watson, whose 63 on Friday matched the PGA record, and Webb Simpson, who went out early Saturday and shot 65 to go from making the cut on the number to a tie for 10th heading into Sunday.
“It’s hard to chase here because the golf course is so hard. It’s really hard to go out and get a fast start,” Simpson said. “I mean, it’s a tough start. I feel like if you’re even through four holes, that’s really good. I’ll take that.”
McIlroy got off to one of those starts Thursday, when he tamed the wind and heat to open with 65. The excellent round came 10 years after he won his first PGA at Kiawah Island with an eight-shot romp — the four-time major winner added his second two years later at Valhalla — and gave him the confidence he could add another major to his ledger.
He was still in contention after a second-round 71, but things began to unravel on the sixth hole Saturday.
McIlroy hit hit a tee shot on the long par-3, playing into the wind for the first time all week, and watched it splash into the water adjacent to the green. After a drop, he hit his approach to about 30 feet and missed the putt for bogey.
He made two more bogeys, the second with a three-putt on the eighth, before a birdie appeared to get him on track.
Then came the par-3 11th, where McIlroy simply made a mess. His approach wound up left of the green, his pitch shot came up short again, another chip finally got him onto the putting surface and a three-putt left him with a triple bogey.
His tournament should have been over right there, but the blowup came during a juncture at Southern Hills when nobody seemed to want to win: Zalatoris was struggling on the front amid the cold shifting winds; Pereira made four bogeys during a five-hole stretch; Justin Thomas headed backward after opening with consecutive 67s; and Watson began to give strokes away on the back nine, closing with three bogeys over his final four holes.
While McIlroy wasn't immune to the problems caused by Perry Maxwell's masterpiece, he showed some guts by fighting back. He made three birdies during a four-hole run on the back side before his deflating bogey at the last.
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