After just making the cut on the number, Rory McIlroy put on a clinic at Quail Hollow Club on Saturday morning during the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship. His ballstriking, iron play, wedges and putting were all downright impressive, propelling him to fire a seven-under 65, six-under total and vaulting him back into contention hours before the leaders teed off.
As he did in the first two rounds, the 24-year-old (25 tomorrow!) Northern Irishman smashed one drive after another — either splitting the fairway or just missing about a foot in the rough. Overall, his iron and wedge play improved from a day prior, but the real difference was his putting.
Earlier this week, McIlroy said he struggled with his putting at the Masters, particularly with his alignment, where he was standing too close to the ball and also opening his stance, which caused him trouble on the greens, especially with left-to-right putts. He reiterated some of those issues following the second round, where he needed 31 strokes on the greens.
McIlroy practiced his stroke and alignment for a good 45 minutes to an hour on Friday evening and it showed on Saturday.
“I figured a few things out on the putting green last night and tried to take it to the course today and really trust it, just not really care if the ball went in the hole be or not but trust what I was doing and it worked,” said McIlroy. “I putted really nicely, held some nice putts, held the putts that I needed to make and there you go — an 11-shot difference.”
Rory only needed 25 putts in the third round. Was he fixing the same problems he’s been dealing with?
“It’s more just eye line, more than anything else,” he explained. “That was really it. You know, where I feel I’m aiming and where I’m aiming are two different things at the minute, so it’s a matter of doing the reps and doing more practice until it becomes second nature, I guess.
I walked with him on the back nine, and I was super impressed with his game as a whole — I mean, those 360-plus yard drives were insane! I also noticed he took extra time using the line on his ball to aim it toward his spot and making sure it was where it looked comfortable to him.
“Yeah, that’s something that I’ve worked on the last couple of weeks coming into this tournament, starting to line the ball up again and it seems to work,” said McIlroy. “It sorta takes one element out of it. Obviously your putting is about line and speed, but if you can get the line right all you need to worry about is the speed then, so just trying to make it easier for myself.”
He sure did. He made all those putts from 3-10 feet to save par — or birdie in the case of the 14th, where he drove the green and left his lag putt nine feet short. He drained a nice four-footer from the bunker on the par-5 10th to get the shot he dropped after a bogey on no. 9.
Then, Rory got up-and-down from just off the green with delicate chips to 3 and 4 feet, respectively, on nos. 12 and 13. On the par-5 15th, he hit three perfect shots and rolled in a four-footer for eighth birdie of the day.
McIlroy encountered a bit of bad luck on the newly-renovated par-4 16th. After smashing a drive down the middle (and unlike yesterday, he didn’t hit it *too* far, so it stayed in the fairway), he hit a perfect wedge, which was all over the pin in the air. Well, unfortunately, it was a little too good because it hit the flagstick and rolled back 20 feet. His birdie putt just burned the edge and he had to settle for a tap-in par.
“It was a great shot, you know, and maybe a little unfortunate but I didn’t make birdie there, but if I keep hitting wedge shots like that I’m not going to complain,” said McIlroy.
On the 18th, he striped another drive, but it didn’t draw back enough, so it ended up just over the fairway bunker on the right and on a downhill slope in the rough. McIlroy was looking at a tough approach into the green guarded by a water hazard and bunkers. He pulled it a little, but it was safe — and there wasn’t really a moment when he thought it might be in trouble.
“I knew if I saw a pitch mark on the green, it wasn’t going in the water,” said Rory. “I was aggressive all day, so I wasn’t going to stop on the last.”
He was left with a tough chip and putt to salvage par.
“It’s a tricky shot because you’re on a uphill lie, and it was sort of — it was quite grassy and dense so I needed to hit it hard enough to not leave it 20 feet short so maybe give it extra at the bottom, and it went 10 feet by, but it was nice to hole that putt at the end and a nice way to finish the run,” said Rory, referring to his chip shot on the 18th.
Four years ago when Rory also made the cut on the number and staged an epic comeback with a closing ten-under 62 in the final round to capture his first PGA Tour victory, he shot a six-under 66 on moving day. He finds himself in a similar spot in this year’s edition of the Wells Fargo Championship, though he doesn’t want to make it a habit.
“I don’t want to get to used to that at this tournament,” he said. “I would rather be up there after two days, but, it was good.”
But, naturally, Rory sees the similarities between this year and 2010.
“It’s the exact same,” he said. “I was 1-over, the lead was 9-under, I shot one less today, so I might not need the 62 that I shot in 2010 but I’ll take it.”
Maybe he’ll just need a 63? Thing is, quite a few players will also make a surge up the leaderboard and the problem for Rory will be the number of guys he needs to overcome to pull off what he did in 2010.
“I’m in the mix, depends what the guys are going to do this afternoon, but I’ll enjoy a nice afternoon,” said McIlroy, who also has two friends from Northern Ireland in town with him. “There is a big soccer match going on back in England pretty soon, so I’ll watch that and looking forward to the (Floyd) Mayweather fight tonight and just relax and get ready for tomorrow afternoon.”
Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson is making quite the run himself. Mickelson fired an astounding seven-under on the front nine to post a 29, which included five birdies and an eagle. He added another birdie on no. 13 to get to 10-under and take the outright lead from Angel Cabrera and Martin Flores, who just teed off.