- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The fist pumps returned, and so did the smiles. It seems forever ago that Rory McIlroy appeared so engaged on a golf course, and he was certainly an interested spectator after his 67 jumped him up the leaderboard Saturday, others left to struggle on a suddenly difficult Oak Hill Country Club.
Defending his PGA Championship this week, McIlroy actually gave himself an outside chance to repeat on Sunday with a rousing finish that had him pumped up and wondering where such vibes had gone through a mostly disappointing year.
"It was good to feel the sort of rush again,'' he said.
That has certainly been absent in a winless season that has seen him miss four cuts, endure a controversial withdrawal, post four top-10s but not really contend since a runner-up finish in April at the Texas Open.
What helped was birdies on the final two holes at Oak Hill, a difficult feat on the two hardest on the course.
"I probably made up at least 3, 3½ shots on those last two holes,'' he said after chipping in for birdie at the last following an approach from 225 yards at the 17th.
That helped him shoot more than 20 places up the leaderboard. He was tied for ninth when he completed his round while the leaders were still on the front nine.
"I knew they were going to toughen the golf course up today,'' McIlroy said. "I sort of thought two 65s would still have a chance. But the way the conditions are with the swirling wind, it's tricky out there. I felt like I still had a chance.
"Every time I'm in that position I just think back to Quail Hollow a few years ago and what I did the weekend there [he barely made the cut, then shot 62 on Sunday to win his first PGA Tour title]. It gives me a bit of confidence knowing that I've been in that position before and I've been able to win.''
Perhaps more important to McIlroy, 24, it gave him the spark that has been missing from his game for much of this season. On Friday, after struggling in the rain, he rallied with a strong back nine to make the cut. On Saturday, he made four birdies and a bogey to get his name on the leaderboard again.
"It started last week,'' McIlroy said of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. "I mean, I had 24 putts for 71 on Friday. Pretty soon, I had 25 putts for 69 on Saturday. So my short game has been really, really good.
"It was just a matter of trying to get a long game in shape. I wouldn't say that was my best ball-striking round out there by any means, but I got it up and down when I needed to, and that was the most important thing.''
McIlroy's plight has been well-chronicled this season. He signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Nike – and changed out all 14 clubs in his bag – on the eve of his first tournament of the season in Abu Dhabi.
There was the high-profile withdrawal from the Honda Classic, the continued struggles on the course and a break-up with his management team. And then came advice from all corners, including Hall of Famers Nick Faldo and Gary Player, both of whom suggested in a roundabout way that perhaps his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki could be getting in the way of his golf.
Never mind that Wozniacki was part of the picture last season when McIlroy won five times, including the PGA Championship by eight strokes, and jumped to No. 1 in the world. He has now dropped to No. 3 behind Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
All of that will matter little if Rory gets back to winning again, and while that might be a long shot here, perhaps this is the start of something good. McIlroy has a big stretch of golf upcoming, including the FedEx Cup playoffs, in which he will be the defending champion in two events.
He also needs to make up some ground in the European Tour's Race to Dubai, a title he won last year but for which he has yet to qualify; he is outside of the top 60 eligible players.
"To play like that on this golf course and do what I needed to do yesterday just to make the cut, and then to go out and play the way I did today, it's a good stretch of holes. I've got another 18 to play and, hopefully, I can just keep playing the way I am.''
, writes ESPN.com's Bob Harig.