CATCH me if you can. That was Rory McIlroy’s message to the pursuing pack as he stayed on course for back-to-back major wins and three triumphs in a row.
“I would rather be the guy that’s being chased,” admitted McIlroy after staging a strong finish to his third round to cement a one-shot lead in the 96th US PGA Championship at Valhalla.
The 25-year-old was caught by playing partner Jason Day after just four holes then watched American duo Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson as well as Austrian Bernd Wiesberger all turn up the heat on the back nine.
But three birdies in the final four holes for a 67 moved McIlroy to 13-under-par, one ahead of Wiesberger (65), with Fowler (67) a further shot adrift and Mickelson (67) three back along with Australian ace Day (69).
“I saw that Phil was making a run, I saw that Rickie was making a few birdies and obviously Bernd, too,” said McIlroy. “I knew that I needed to make a couple of birdies coming down the back nine to keep the lead.”
He held big leads with a round to go when landing his three major victories to date - the 2011 US Open, the 2012 US PGA and, of course, The Open at Hoylake last month.
“I’ll win anyway I can,” he said of finding himself at the top of a closely-packed leaderboard on this occasion. “If that means I have to scrap it out down the stretch, so be it.”
Wiesberger stormed into contention for the biggest win of his career by staying calm in the same group as Mickelson - and now he’s aiming to do the same thing in McIlroy’s company.
“I’ve not been in contention in a major championship so I don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” confessed the 28-year-old, a two-times European Tour winner.
“I’m just going to try and enjoy it, as I did today. From now on, it’s just a bonus, really.”
Fowler is in the reckoning again, having already finished fifth, second and second again in the three previous majors this season.
“The past majors have been building blocks and every time I play in these events I feel more comfortable,” said the 25-year-old Californian.
“I feel like it’s just a matter of time and I’ve just got to get one and the rest will follow.”
Mickelson, bidding to repeat his 2005 win in this event, is relishing the prospect of last-day shoot-out on the course where he was part of a winning Ryder Cup team six years ago.
“I feel like every time I tee up this week I have that seven, eight or nine-under in me - I just haven’t played all 18 holes the way I have the last five,” said 44-year-old.
“Tomorrow, much like Muirfield, I got to get going straight from hole No 1,” he added, referring to the strong final round that saw him become Open champion in East Lothian last summer.
Also still in with a chance, just four off the lead, are South African Louis Oosthuizen (67), Swede Henrik Stenson (67), Finn Mikko Ilonen (69) and American Ryan Palmer (69).
“The way the golf course is now (ie wet), you can attack quite a bit,” noted 2010 Open champion Oosthuizen. “You don’t get that opportunity every time you play a major so it will be fun.”
Marc Warren leapt 30 spots to 23rd on five-under after a 66 - one outside the best round of the day from both Wiesberger and Hunter Mahan - while Colin Montgomerie (72) is joint-63rd on one-over.