CRAWFORD | McIlroy leads heading into expected Sunday shootout a - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | McIlroy leads heading into expected Sunday shootout at PGA

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- To borrow a phrase from Kentucky's favorite sport, the 96th PGA Championship field shot the lights out at Valhalla Golf Club on Saturday.

The golf curmudgeons will shudder at the collective scoring average of 69.57 -- 1.4 strokes below par -- and that's from the entire field.

They will shriek at the seven eagles that landed on the par four fourth hole, by far the easiest hole of the day, playing in an average of 3.31 strokes. Seventy four golfers played it. There were only two bogies, and one double bogey.

Souped up by 1.2 inches of rain in the preceding 48 hours, Valhalla's greens and fairways were as soft as a Krispy Kreme donut fresh from the oven, and the best golfers in the world cooked them to set up what may be the most memorable day of golf this year in Sunday's final.

Rory McIlroy didn't have his "A" game, he admitted, but he still shot a 4-under 67 to take a one-stroke lead into Sunday, 13-under for the tournament.

That's one shot better than Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, two better than Rickie Fowler, and three better than Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

But he has little breathing room. Seventeen players are within six strokes of McIlroy's lead.

"It wasn't as easy as I expected it to be out there today," McIlroy said. "They tucked a few pins away, and obviously playing with the lead, as well, you maybe can't play with the freedom as if you're chasing. But I'm really happy with how I finished. To shoot another 67 without really having some of my best stuff for the round was really pleasing."

McIlroy is no stranger to taking leads into final days of tournaments. He has won protecting them, and he's lost trying to protect them. But he said with the course condition begin what it is, and with his lead only at one stroke and a large contingent on his heels, there should be no hesitation Sunday.

"Standing on the first tee tomorrow is going to feel different than how it felt a month ago at Hoylake (with a three-stroke lead in the British Open)," he said. "Because it's going to be a shootout. You know the conditions are soft; guys are going to make birdies, and you know that you're going to have to make birdies as well."

Wiesberger pulled even with McIlroy with a putt on No. 18, leaving the world's No. 1 ranked player with one last opportunity to regain the lead for himself heading to the final hole. McIlroy, as he did several times when challenged on Sunday, said he was cognizant of wanting the lead back of himself.

"I was conscious of it on the 17th green, with that putt on 17, trying to take the lead there and try and really finish with a flourish," he said. "So yeah, I was conscious. I was looking a bit at the leaderboard out there today and see where I was and see what I needed to do to try to retain my advantage going into tomorrow."

Mickelson birdied No. 4 and No. 7 to shoot 2-under on the front nine, then bogied No. 11 and 12 to bog down on the back. But starting with No. 14, he birdied four of his final five holes to sit directly in contention, and he thanked the large galleries who cheered him on for helping him build momentum.

"It really is amazing when you look at the weather conditions and the challenges logistically to get here from a spectator's point of view, how many people have shown up to support this tournament," Mickelson said. "Now they have done it every year from '96 and 2000 PGA and the '08 Ryder Cup, the fans have been sensational, and supporting us the way they did to that '08 victory. . . . It's just great energy, it's great energy to have so many people and be so supportive not just of myself but all the players."

Fowler, who played with Mickelson, shot the same score, 4-under, for the day and sits just two shouts out of the lead. His aggregate score in major rounds is the lowest on the tour, and he's bidding on Sunday to become only the third player ever to finish in the top five of all four majors in a single year. The only other two to do it -- Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

He said his mindset won't be finishing high on Sunday, but winning.

"I would say that the leaderboard is the most jam-packed it's been, maybe since the start of the final round at the Masters before kind of Jordan (Kaymer) and Bubba (Watson) distanced themselves a bit. . . . This one's out there for the taking, for sure. Anyone can go out and post a number tomorrow. With the way the golf course is playing, it's not out of the question that someone can go shoot 8- or 9-under. Being five, six, seven shots back, post early and you never know what can happen. It's wide open and someone is going to have to play some good, solid golf tomorrow to win."

But Kenny Perry, before leaving for a birthday party, sitting 10 strokes back at three-under for the tournament, issued a warning.

"Saturday is usually the day they set it up and give us a chance to score," Perry said. "Sunday you'll see dead opposite. You will see really severe pin placements and it'll be a very severe test tomorrow."

McIlroy called it a shootout. And there will be a lot of big guns firing.

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