Rory McIlroy shot a two-under round of 70 to take a share of the lead on moving day at Muirfield Village and will join Si Woo Kim in the final group for Sunday’s finale.
Jack Nicklaus’ course has taken few prisoners this week and as the course firmed up over the afternoon, there was considerable volatility at the top of the leaderboard prior to McIlroy’s name ascending to the top, to sit alongside Kim and David Lipsky at -6.
The four-time major champion would par eight of the first nine holes at Muirfield Village, with a holed 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 fifth the outlier as he’d make the turn at -5 for the tournament.
A wayward tee shot on the par-4 10th did the damage as he’d card his first bogey of the day, but on the difficult par-3 12th, his tee shot landed directly on line with the flag, skipping into the rough just over the back of the green. Facing a rapid downhill chip, McIlroy’s short game skills were on full display as he deftly flopped the ball onto the green and watched it trickle down and disappear into the cup for a birdie-two.
Two putts from distance were good enough for another birdie at the par-5 15th, but he’d drop a shot at the treacherously tough par-3 16th, before holing crucial putts on the closing two holes – the first a seven-foot birdie putt on the 17th and the second a nine-footer for par on the last to put himself in Sunday’s final group.
“Similar, I would say,” the former world number one replied when asked how the swing compared to the previous few days. “Felt like I have hit the ball pretty well this week. The big thing for me around here with how penal it is off the tee is just getting the ball in play. So throttling back, hitting a lot of 3-woods, irons off tees. Using the driver sort of sporadically. That’s been the game plan and that’s what’s really worked over the last three days.”
Though still not firing on all cylinders, McIlroy has become adept in recent years of hanging around the top of the leaderboard without his ‘A’ game. “Yeah, just hanging in there,” he shrugged. “As I said, getting the ball in play off the tee is really important for me. Yeah, and embracing it. There was a couple of shots out there when I missed the greens that I was sort of looking forward to hit. I think it’s embracing that challenge and embracing the fact that you’re probably not going to hit more than 12 or 13 greens out there. And I think with how my short game’s been this week it’s something I’ve been able to fall back on, which has been great.
“It would mean a ton to me to win this tournament. I’ve played pretty well here over the years without really having a realistic chance to win. So to be able to walk up that hill from 18 and get that handshake from Jack would be pretty nice. I won Arnold’s tournament a few years ago, but he had already passed by the time. So it would be so nice to be able to do it and have Jack be there and stuff. It would be really cool.”
Earlier in the day, Shane Lowry carded a two-under round of 70 to climb 11 places on the leaderboard, while Seamus Power went the other way courtesy of a three-over 75.
Back-to-back bogeys to finish the round will have left a slightly sour taste in the Offaly man’s mouth, however, with his famed short game prowess letting him down on both. Lowry had taken care of both par-5s on the front nine, with another birdie coming at the par-3 eighth. He’d get to -4 for the day on the par-5 11th, and at three-under for the tournament was provisionally sitting inside the top 10.
A bogey at the 13th was immediately followed by a birdie on 14, but a three-putt par on 15 was frustrating and the two closing bogeys dropped him back to -1 for the tournament and tied for 33rd at the end of the day’s play.
Power made just one birdie in his third round, with four bogeys, three of which came on the back nine, seeing the Waterford man end the day tied for 50th at +2.