Commentary

Rory McIlroy sitting pretty at PGA

Updated: August 12, 2012, 12:43 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- His talent obvious, his victory so decisive, it was easy to anoint Rory McIlroy golf's next superstar. A prodigy already a pro for several years, now he had won his first major championship in stunning fashion, speculation soon following as to how many more he would claim.

Here we are more than a year since McIlroy's impressive U.S. Open victory at Congressional, and there have been more plot twists in his life than he has curls in his hair.

He began dating a high-profile tennis player (Caroline Wozniacki), decided to switch tactics on tour membership (he's playing both the European and PGA tours), dumped his high-profile manager (Chubby Chandler), caught fire (five straight top-5s to start the year), then cooled off (missed cuts in four of five events).

Along the way, he got to No. 1 in the world, fell out of the top spot, regained it, fell back again and has now dropped to third.

[+] EnlargeWoods
AP Photo/John RaouxAfter finishing off a 2-over 74 in Round 3 on Sunday morning at the PGA Championship, Tiger Woods is 5 shots behind Rory McIlroy's 54-hole lead at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course.

It has been a curious, fascinating, winding road back to the top of a leaderboard in a major championship.

But here is McIlroy, still just 23 years old, a lifetime of travails endured, with the 54-hole lead in a major championship again. His 3-stroke advantage over Carl Pettersson comes after finishing off a 5-under-par 67 during the weather-delayed third round of the PGA Championship that was completed Sunday morning.

It is the first time McIlroy has contended in a major since winning the 2011 U.S. Open by 8 strokes. His best finish in that stretch was a tie for 25th at last year's Open Championship -- a tournament in which he was chided for complaining about the weather.

"I've come in here with a little bit of confidence from the way I played last week,'' said McIlroy, referring to his tie for fifth at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. "It's just been nice to take that into this week and show it out on the golf course.

"I've put myself in a nice position. And as I said here on Wednesday, that's all I really wanted to do, just put myself into position, and I've been able to do that.''

Asked prior to the tournament for his goals for the week, McIlroy basically said he wanted to give himself a chance on Sunday.

"That's all I can ask for,'' he said. "I can't sit up here and say a success would be to win or a top-3 or a top-5. If I feel like I have a decent chance going into Sunday, that's all I can ask for.''

McIlroy has that and more. He began early Sunday morning tied for the lead with Vijay Singh, having completed nine holes of his third round. He parred the first three holes of the back nine -- twice missing short birdie putts -- made a bogey at the 13th, then made consecutive birdies at the 15th and 16th holes.

He finished at 209, 7 under par, 3 strokes ahead of Pettersson, who shot a third-round 72. Bo Van Pelt, Adam Scott and Trevor Immelman are another shot back at 3 under. Singh and Tiger Woods, who began the third round tied for the lead at 4 under par, dropped back to 2 under with 74s.

"I thought it was just a continuation of how I played yesterday afternoon,'' McIlroy said. "I struck the ball beautifully from tee to green, same thing on Thursday, as well. Just one more round like that, and I'll be happy.''

McIlroy was never a factor in last year's PGA in Atlanta after suffering a first-round wrist injury while attempting to play a shot by a root. He finished in a tie for 64th.

But after finishing that tournament, he went on a solid run. His tournament finishes around the world were: T3-3-2-2-T4-1-T11-2-T5-2-1-3. His victories came in Hong Kong on the European Tour and at the PGA Tour's Honda Classic, where he moved to No. 1 in the world for the first time after holding off a hard-charging Woods.

A week later, McIlroy finished third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and seemed poised to make another run at the Masters -- where he had squandered a 4-shot, 54-hole lead in 2011.

But McIlroy shot a third-round 77 at Augusta National and has struggled since. He did lose in a playoff to Rickie Fowler at the Wells Fargo Championship and was in contention at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. But McIlroy missed four cuts in five events, including the U.S. Open. And he tied for 60th last month at the Open Championship.

Now he's in a position from which players have had difficulty closing out tournaments this year. Only 11 of 34 leaders through 54 holes have gone on to win this year on the PGA Tour, none of the major winners. The last to do so in a major was Darren Clarke at last year's Open Championship.

At this year's Open Championship, Scott blew a 54-hole lead -- and a 4-stroke advantage with four holes to play.

"I think you see a lot of guys who haven't held on in the past, it's been a first-time experience for them,'' McIlroy said. "I learned a lot from the Masters last year, and that's definitely something that I can think back to and draw on some of those memories and some of the feelings I had at Congressional as well.

"You realize that you might not feel the same or your anxiety level is a little bit higher, and at least being in that position before, I'll know what to do again. I think Augusta last year will stand me in great stead this afternoon.''

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com